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Monday, October 08, 2012 10:29 PM

Photo by Matt Bristow/The Ottawa Herald


A vintage fire truck, carrying the casket of William Howard Cunningham, 4 months, Ottawa, leads a funeral procession Sept. 28 following a celebration of life at Fredrikson Chapel, 1011 S. Cedar St., Ottawa. Cunningham died after complications from a heart defect called total anomalous pulmonary venous return.

Fire truck, community carry family through grief

By DOUG CARDER, Herald Senior Writer

As the 1952 Diamond T fire truck rounded the corner from Cedar Street onto 15th Street, Sara Cunningham started to cry.

A row of fire trucks and firefighters, clad their dress uniforms, lined 15th Street to form a solemn lane for Chris and Sara Cunningham’s antique vehicle to pass through.

The Cunninghams’ fire truck was carrying a special cargo: the fire engine-red casket of the their 4-month-old son, William Howard Cunningham.

“It really was breath-taking,” Sara Cunningham, 31, said of the lane of trucks and firefighters. “I immediately started crying.”

Chris Cunningham, a 34-year-old Ottawa volunteer firefighter, was at the wheel of the classic fire truck on that Sept. 28 morning.

“I didn’t see the line [of fire trucks] at first because I was concentrating on turning the corner,” Cunningham said. “The truck doesn’t have power steering, so I was cranking the wheel.”

Sara Cunningham recalled telling her husband to focus on keeping the truck in the middle of the road.

“I told him not to look,” Cunningham said. “I knew it would be heartbreaking.”

But it was too late. Her husband already had glimpsed at the brotherhood of firefighters.

“The floodgates opened,” Chris Cunningham said. “I had no idea they were going to do that.”

That Friday morning marked the first and final ride for William in what had been a tumultuous four months for the Cunningham family.

William Howard Cunningham died Sept. 22 in Kansas City, Mo., four months after he was born May 10, 2012. He spent those four months fighting for his life after being born with a heart defect — total anomalous pulmonary venous return — that affected how his pulmonary veins attached to his heart.

He survived two heart surgeries and multiple procedures while at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Mo. Chris and Sara and William’s brother, Carson, 3, and sister, Mackenzie, 6, would visit him every day. During William’s short life, he developed his own personality, Sara Cunningham said.

“Whenever something would happen that the doctors or nurses couldn’t explain, they would just say, “That’s just William,’” she said. “William was just being William.”

Chris Cunningham purchased the antique fire truck on eBay in fall 2003. The truck had served a county fire department in the Little Rock, Ark., area.

At the time, the Cunninghams had no idea what a significant role it would play in their lives.

“William’s brother and sister wanted to take William for a ride on the fire truck when he came home from the hospital,” Sara Cunningham said.

So the Cunninghams decided: “Why not?”

“What little boy doesn’t love fire trucks?” Sara Cunningham said. “Every little boy dreams at some point of growing up to be a fireman, and the lucky ones get to.”

The day after William died on a Saturday, Chris Cunningham set about cleaning up the fire truck.

“People started showing up to help me,” he said. “The outpouring we received while William was in the hospital, and since his death, has been tremendous. When something like this happens, you find out the size of your village. Even though we aren’t originally from here, Ottawa made us feel like we were truly a part of the community.”

William was dressed in his firefighter Navy blues, the customary dress for a fallen firefighter, and a pumper truck was embroidered on the inside of the casket lid.

As Chris, Sara, Mackenzie and Carson rode in the truck with William en route to Highland Cemetery on 15th Street, William let the family know he was along for the ride in spirit, too, Sara mused.

“The fire truck looked good and was running great,” she recalled. “But as we started to head up the hill to the cemetery, it stalled.”

The truck had performed admirably after leaving the funeral service at Fredrikson Chapel on the Ottawa University campus, 1011 S. Cedar St. — until that hill near the cemetery on 15th Street.

Chris Cunningham said he could not get the truck to fire to life again.

“I think that was William’s way of telling us he was still in charge,” Chris laughed.

Sara agreed.

“It was his way of telling us he was there with us,” she said.

Ottawa firefighters unloaded the casket and planned to carry William to the cemetery, but a family friend showed up with a tow strap, and he pulled the fire truck the rest of the way to the cemetery, Sara Cunningham said.

The outpouring from the community and their faith has helped the family realize they weren’t shouldering the burden alone, Sara Cunningham said.

“The community has been so wonderful,” she said. “We are in love with Ottawa. We can say, ‘This is our home.’”

Doug Carder is senior writer for The Herald. Email him at dcarder@ottawaherald.com

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