ATLANTIC CITY — Former Fire Chief John Bereheiko was remembered Saturday during his funeral as a man who rose up through the ranks to head the department but never forgot his roots answering alarms.
Bereheiko, who died March 29 at age 60, was honored by firefighters who came out in force Saturday at St. Nicholas of Tolentine Roman Catholic Church on Pacific Avenue.
“He was a really sincere and dedicated firefighter. Safety was his No. 1 thing. He wanted to make sure the firefighters went home at the end of the day,” current Fire Chief Dennis J. Brooks said.
Retired Fire Chief Benjamin Brenner, the chief Bereheiko replaced, recalled grooming him for the job. Brenner said Bereheiko lived in northern New Jersey when he took an exam to become a firefighter in 1976. He had a choice of jobs in Camden or Atlantic City. He chose Atlantic City. It was right as casino gambling was arriving, and a city full of old construction was constantly catching fire.
“He came in right with the casinos. There were plenty of fires. Now, they are few and far between,” Brenner said.
Bereheiko quickly rose to the rank of captain, and when Brenner was elevated to chief, he made Bereheiko a deputy chief.
“I was out of town on vacation, and he was the acting chief when we had the garage collapse at the Tropicana. He ran that,” Brenner said of the Oct. 30, 2003, incident in which four construction workers were killed.
Bereheiko, who retired in 2007 after three years as chief, was also known for being able to wade through the administrative side of the business, such as dealing with City Hall and procuring new equipment.
“There are a lot of politics and administrative headaches that come with this job. There is also the discipline part. You have to serve the city. The job comes first, and our needs come second,” Brooks said.
Brenner said in his day, firefighters would often leave one fire and have to respond to another. When he began, the department didn’t even have radios or air packs. Brooks said two or three fires a night were not uncommon, with at least one general alarm a month. The department alerted residents to a fire by having all the traffic lights in town blink yellow.
“The town was really burning, and we saw a lot of death and destruction,” said Brooks. “He never complained about the job once. He was on the top of every list and went through the ranks quick.”
“He was a good man,” Brenner added.
The two chiefs served as pallbearers while firefighters lined the steps leaving the church. The honor guard held fire axes, Bereheiko’s helmet and an American flag. Bagpipers from the Atlantic City Fire Department Sand Pipers Pipe Band played. Norm Wilson, a retired firefighter who runs the band, just came from the funerals of two Boston firefighters who had died in the line of duty.
Wilson said the bagpipe tradition for firefighter funerals came with Irish immigrants who manned police and fire jobs when they arrived in the U.S.
“Police and fire were the dirtiest, most dangerous and low-paying jobs. A lot of Irish took these jobs and brought this tradition back with them,” Wilson said.
Usually the pipes are reserved for line-of-duty deaths, but when the Bereheiko family asked them to play, Wilson did not hesitate.
“Chief Bereheiko was one of our biggest supporters. He always went out of his way to help the pipe band,” Wilson said.
When the funeral processsion passed Station 1 at Maryland and Atlantic avenues, the last alarm was sounded for Bereheiko. Volunteer fire companies in Absecon and Pomona also paid their respects as the casket was taken to Holy Cross Cemetery in Mays Landing.
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