Celebrated Firefighter Faces Fiercest Test Of Courage



On the morning of April 17, a small compact car loaded with six teenagers was speeding north on Usury Pass toward Payson when, at about 80 miles per hour, it careened out of control and off the road.

The vehicle soared 75 feet in the air, hit the ground, rolled several times, and hurled the teenagers into the desert.

Three died horribly. But three survived, thanks to a singular twist of fate.

In the car directly behind the victims was Mesa firefighter and Beaver Valley resident Duke Arrington, who was headed home to celebrate his 11th wedding anniversary.

His most vivid memory is of finding a young woman who had been impaled on a cholla cactus, split in half, but still alive. Briefly. But as a professional lifesaver, Arrington was able to swallow the horror and move on to those he could help.

Saturday, as a result of his actions, Arrington was given the national title of Firefighter of the Year, bestowed by more than 2,000 Elks lodges across the country.

"It was an honor, a thrill, a privilege," Arrington said during an interview Monday. "But really, everyone who loves their job and is professionally trained deserves this kind of recognition."

Two more lives to save

Arrington was a Mesa firefighter, paramedic and underwater dive rescue/HazMat team member for 22 years.

During that time, he saved or helped save perhaps dozens of lives. But Arrington's own life was put into jeopardy in 1987. As he attempted to help a dying motorcyclist, Arrington stabbed his own hand with a bloody IV needle.

It wasn't until last fall that a physical examination revealed the result of that accident: Arrington carried chronic hepatitis C, an incurable, blood-transferable form of liver disease.

Most patients are given 15 to 20 years to live after contracting hepatitis C. By the time it was discovered, the disease had been eating away at Arrington's health and immune system for 13 years.

Arrington was forced to take a leave of absence from work to begin a barely-tested form of anti-virus/nuclear-chemical therapy. But the worst was yet to come. Three weeks after his own diagnosis, Arrington's wife of 19 years, Cindy with whom he regularly shared disposable razors and, therefore, minute drops of blood was also diagnosed with hepatitis C.

Since that time, Duke has responded positively to the new brand of chemotherapy. But while Cindy was supposed to start treatment in January, she's been too ill to handle it. She hopes to be up to the challenge within the next few months.

No matter what, Duke and Cindy will always be carriers of hepatitis C, and both may someday require liver transplants. Their only real hope is that the disease won't always remain active.

A hero defined

Together, all of these unpleasant facts have put a dark spin on Arrington's most recent triumph.

"I was a workaholic," Arrington said. "I never used to be home much. My kids were raised here by my wife. But then all of a sudden we both need nursemaids. I can't stand TV, I can't stand noise, I hate life, I hate myself. I'm dragging my whole family down. I'm a fireman that's supposed to be heroic. This award comes and I'm thinking, 'Hero? I've infected my wife. I'm on death row. I don't want to see anybody. I've been locked up in my house for three months now, feeling crummy. You want everybody to hate you so you can hate yourself. It's a no-win situation.

"But this award has helped to turn things around. I felt like I was somebody again, instead of a diseased individual that can't help anybody again. Like, I can't even help my wife.

"It's been, as they say, a very rocky road. But the award really kept my spirits up. I'm danged near through it. I still have to go through it with my wife, but I'm conquering my own task."

Earlier, Cindy had spoken of her husband's struggle.

"He's had a really long year," she said. "He's had a very hard time on the treatment. It's been nasty. It's really got him down. But he responded well and he should be getting off shortly. Then we're going to be taking a break for a couple of weeks before I start the treatment.

"I'm faithful that I'll respond well, and that we'll have all this behind us before too long," Cindy said. "Right now ... well, Duke, me, our kids (daughter Britney, 9, and son Nathan, 10), it's been a long, hard year.

"But we're stronger because of it. We're all a lot stronger. We've held up."

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