By Melissa Klaric
Herald Staff Writer
Firefighters from Transfer Station 75 sent out an emotional “last call” for their chief at 11:44 a.m. Saturday at the conclusion of his funeral service.
Phillip P. Steele, 53, passed away unexpectedly Tuesday after 35 years with the Transfer Volunteer Fire Department, 22 years as its chief. Steele had suffered from renal disease.
Steele’s funeral service was held in Hempfield Township VFD’s Station One Banquet Center. Eulogies were delivered by Richard Gibbons, a state Department of Health director with the Bureau of Emergency Medical Services; Robert “Bob” Goeltz, Hermitage’s fire marshal; and Bobby Rowe, Steele’s lifelong friend. The solemn strains of a traditional bagpiper followed the flag-folding ceremony as the service ended.
After the service, a formal firefighter’s funeral ceremony for Steele was held, arranged by the state fire commissioner.
“It’s a very challenging type of ceremony,” said John Libonati, Mercer County deputy coroner. “It is very touching.”
As the bagpiper played “Amazing Grace,” pallbearers – all members of the Transfer VFD including new Chief Ed Robinson – carried Steele’s casket to a waiting Station 75 fire engine, where it took 12 more men to lift it onto the truck.
The black draped engine then led a lengthy procession of nearly 60 pieces of emergency apparatus full of first responders from Mercer, Crawford, Lawrence and Beaver counties to Steele’s final resting place – Transfer Cemetery.
People wanting to honor the late chief lined the Main Street of Greenville and much of state Route 18 to Edgewood Drive in Pymatuning Township.
At that intersection, cars filled the parking lots. People stood silent in the cold, some lifting cameras periodically as the procession passed.
The procession turned west onto Edgewood Drive, passing first under a wind-whipped American flag, hung between the extended ladders of aerial trucks from Conneaut Lake and North Shenango VFDs.
As each vehicle passed under the flag and approached Steele’s home and the Pymatuning Township Municipal Building where he served as supervisor, the truck’s siren let out a single blast.
A STAT Medevac helicopter flew over the procession and the cemetery in its final salute to the chief and paramedic, who served multiple ambulance companies, including Rural Metro, Gold Cross, Life Force, McGonigle and Eastern Medical.
A private committal service for Steele included a bell-ringing ceremony, Libonati said.
The special signal of bells symbolizes the end of Steele’s duties and his coming home, leaving his men to carry on his legacy.
One area firefighter posted this message on Facebook, “We’ve got it from here, chief.”
“He was very well-respected, a true advocate for those he was serving and those who served,” Libonati said. “He had a passion for that.”
Dr. David O. King was nearby to honor his friend. King, a former state representative, formerly chaired the Mercer County Republicans when Steele was the party treasurer.
“This is a well-deserved tribute,” King said. “Bottom line, you don’t replace him, you just honor him.”
Greenville Fire Department, as well as departments from Crawford and Trumbull counties, covered for stations close to Transfer whose firefighters attended the ceremonies.
Nels Frick, a fire police captain from Greenville’s Station 96, worked several fires with Steele.
“I saw him bring that Transfer station up a long way in the past 25 years,” Frick said. “He’s going to be missed in Mercer County.”
Station 75 in Transfer went offline Wednesday and will come back online after its firefighters feel ready and have had enough time to grieve.
“We worked side by side for 20 years, I’m honored to have him as a friend,” Libonati said. “He had a huge heart.”
Steele is survived by his wife, Cheryl; two children; two grandchildren; a sister and a brother; and his mother.