TWISP, Wash. -- Proud parents Richard and Jennifer Zbyszewski are heartbroken over the loss of their only son -- a 20-year-old student and one of three U.S. Forest Service firefighters who died while battling a wildfire near Twisp.
Their son, Tom Zbyszewski, and 26-year-old Andrew Zajac and 31-year-old Richard Wheeler died Wednesday when they became trapped by a quick-moving fire.
Tom’s parents said this was only his second year firefighting; he fought the devastating Carlton Complex Fire in central Washington last year, too.
Firefighting is part of the Zbyszweski family legacy; Richard and Jennifer spent more than 20 years fighting wildfires. Their son followed in their footsteps.
But the loss of Tom is nearly unbearable.
“He was the light of our life, you know?" said Richard. “I’d have given anything to have yesterday not happen. ... There’s no way we can replace a son."
Richard and Jennifer said Thursday they wanted to talk publicly to let people know about their son.
“We just want people to know what a wonderful person he was and how bad we feel," Richard said, choking back tears.
Police said the Forest Service firefighters responded to a new fire along Twisp River Road on Wednesday afternoon. But the fire crew got into a vehicle accident and then the fire swarmed them, killing all three men. Four other firefighters were injured.
It’s a tragedy for everyone in the Methow Valley and beyond.
“This is a tight community -- everybody knows everybody,” said Okanogan Sheriff Frank Rogers. “It’s really hard. A lot of my guys had a tough time last night. A lot of firefighters had a tough time.”
During Tom’s first year of firefighting, he was interviewed by the Methow Valley News, and talked about how emotional the job can be while trying to save neighbors' and friends' homes.
“That puts another level of strain on local firefighters," Tom was quoted as saying. "We have to put that out of our minds so we can focus on the fire.”
But now the focus for Tom’s family is to remember how brave their son was – and how much his community will miss him.
“He had a lot of friends and was very kind to everyone,” said Jennifer.
The flag at the Okanogan County 6 Fire Station was flying at half-staff to remember their fallen comrades. A procession of police and fire vehicles passed by the station as firefighters held their hands over their hearts.