Nearly 2,000 Pay Tribute to Fallen Firefighter Cory Iverson: "He Left as a Superhero."
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Friends, family and fellow firefighters bade an emotional farewell Saturday to Cory Iverson, the 32-year-old San Diego County fireman who died battling the massive Thomas fire nine days ago near Fillmore.
About 1,800 filled the Rock Church in Point Loma to hear eulogies, highlighted by a promise from his widow, Ashley.
In a calm, determined voice, the mother of their 2-year-old daughter, Evie, and pregnant with their second -- to be named Taylor -- recalled one of the last talks the couple had before Iverson left for the fire lines.
She said she expressed fear for his safety but also her wish to make a difference to others.
"My sweet husband left this earth not as a hero but in my eyes he left as a superhero," she said, "a superhero that has given me the platform to make that difference. So today I will make one more vow to you, my love. I vow to make you proud. I am no longer a slave to fear."
The Thomas fire, which broke out Dec. 4, has consumed 273,000 acres in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, destroyed 1,073 structures and claimed one other death. It was 65 percent contained Saturday and is now the largest wildfire in the state's history, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
San Diego County Fire Chief Tony Mecham said it is too early to decide on a permanent memorial to Iverson.
But one early idea, inspired by Iverson's love of the outdoors, is to build a trail in his honor that future firefighters could hike and learn about his devotion to duty.
Iverson, a fire apparatus engineer, apparently died of burns and smoke inhalation, but the details will not be known until a thorough investigation is completed in coming months, Mecham said. The chief said Iverson had just completed a 24-hour shift locally before being called up to the Thomas fire.
In addition to his immediate family who live north of Escondido, Iverson is survived by his parents and stepfather, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins.
A family friend set up a GoFundMe page that so far has collected just short of $600,000 toward a $1 million goal. Donations may also be made through a firefighters benevolent fund at CalFire. A "boot drive" also drew $185,000 in donations Friday.
The two-and-a-half-hour service began on a warm winter morning at the Liberty Station church.
Hundreds of firefighters and first responders from at least 40 agencies stood at attention alongside fire rigs parked on Truxton Road, an American flag hanging from two ladder rigs at the entrance.
It was a silent vigil, waiting for the family and an urn carrying Iverson's remains to arrive. Ashley Iverson walked slowly up the steps with her daughter in her arms, saying "Thank you so much" to well-wishers who followed her inside.
A somber bagpipe and drum corps led the color guard of flags into the sanctuary, after which Rock Church Pastor Miles McPherson said Iverson's family wished the service to be a "party to celebrate his life."
"We are here to celebrate not a fallen hero but a risen hero," he said.
Besides fellow firefighters, police officers and other first responders, the service was attended by Gov. Jerry Brown, who consoled the family beforehand but did not speak. State and local elected officials also were present.
Mecham recounted some of Iverson's life story -- a "little shy and goofy" who would sleep with his baseball cap, glove in hand, at night.
He graduated from Orange Glen High School and held various jobs until his uncle Stephen Thomas, who also worked at CalFire, helped him join the service.
He joined crews aboard helicopters and used hand tools and chainsaws to gain control over fires when water hoses weren't present. He served on the "Hot Shot" crew in the Angeles National Forest and later met and married his wife.
One of the tributes Mecham read said, "If you could clone a firefighter, you'd clone Cory."
Austin Thomas said his cousin encouraged him when he successfully applied to the Palomar Fire Academy. Before his final interview, Iverson advised, "Don't be a dumbass."
Thomas said he wore Iverson's name badge from his days at Vons to the service with a cross added to it.
Many firefighters pasted a black stripe, some marked "Iverson," across their badges.
Iverson's brother Luke delivered the most personal and poignant eulogy, saying Cory was his best friend and confidant.
"Cory's passion, determination and capacity to love were unmatched," he said. "He had such a huge heart. Cory strived for perfection in everything he did. Whether in his work life or family life, he gave 100 percent, 100 percent of the time."
Choking up at times and pausing to contain his emotions, Luke Iverson said the last week has been "extremely difficult" for him and his family but that faith would console them.
"I love you, brother. I'm going to miss you so much," he concluded.
Officials said about 100 firefighters die in the line of duty nationally each year. Iverson is the only one who fell this year at CalFire, other than a state inmate who also died of wounds suffered fighting another fire earlier this year.
Mecham said after the service that many firefighters have already volunteered to help Ashley Iverson over the next year with housekeeping chores and other assistance.
The chief and his wife have become close to the Iversons and intend to watch over them in the future.
"It's our extended family," Mecham said.
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