SUMITON - Officials in Sumiton are reflecting this week on the life of a longtime firefighter, Lt. Rickey Lee Woods, who died last week and will receive a major fireman's tribute at his funeral on Saturday. He was 69.
The death of the Sumiton resident - said in a 2012 Daily Mountain Eagle report to be one of the first African-American firefighters in the area - was announced on the Facebook page of the Sumiton Fire and Rescue after he died on Friday from COVID-19 at UAB Hospital in Birmingham.
Officials with Sumiton Fire and Rescue posted on Facebook that a funeral is being planned for Saturday, Oct. 17, at Sumiton Church of God. Although his church was at Pleasant Ridge Baptist Church in Sumiton, officials are holding the service there due to handle the number of people who want to come. Burial will be at Pleasant Ridge Baptist Church Cemetery.
"This is going to be considered a line of duty death," Waid said. "He potentially contracted COVID from running calls," Fire Chief David Waid said. A formal fireman's tribute is expected that day, with a large turnout from other departments. An honor guard and bag pipes are expected.
"Rickey joined our department in 1992 and faithfully served his community without wavering for 28 years!" the department said in a post. "Rickey loved the Lord and loved to sing about him. If you met Rickey then you knew it immediately. Rickey never met a stranger and if you met him then you were a friend to him. Please keep the Woods family and our department in your thoughts and prayers!"
Waid noted Woods worked at the fire station Monday through Friday each week.
"He worked Thursday (September) the 10th, and he was off the next day to go to the doctor on the 11th. On the 12th, he called the rescue truck to his house, and he was admitted that day and was in the hospital since," Waid said.
Sumiton Mayor Petey Ellis, asked about Woods Monday, said he could speak at length on Woods. "You don't have enough space in the newspaper to give him an obituary. He was a fine a man as I've ever known. We've been life-long friends."
Ellis said he had joined the fire department about the same time that Ellis became mayor.
"He never met a stranger. He was a PR guy. He was a paramedic. He did it all," he said."
The mayor said he and Waid were on the phone that morning to discuss a replacement. "You can't find that," he said, someone who "did the work every day, be there every day, and be pleasant while they are doing it."
Woods' personality was part of his charm, Ellis said. "He was just a good man."
He said once Waid's brother Randall and Woods were at a cemetery, and a third man showed up. Eventually Woods pulled away from Randall and put his arm around the third man, talking to him.
After they separated, Randall Waid asked Woods who that was. Woods said, "I don't know. He just looked like a guy who needed a friend."
David Waid said Monday Woods was a certified firefighter and was a first-responder. Being retired, working at the station gave him something to do in retirement and stipends for running calls. Most of his responses were for medical calls, he said.
"Anyone who spends 28 years as a volunteer, that's pretty big, especially today," Waid said, calling Woods an excellent volunteer. Few of the firemen in the department where there before Woods - possibly Waid and three others.
"But in Sumiton, Rickey was more than just a fireman," he said. "Rickey was everybody's friend. He never met a stranger. He seemed to know everybody." Waid said Woods had a very big heart for others and was good at dealing with people.
"That was really good for our calls. Rickey was the guy who took care of everybody when they were upset," he said, referring to people in trouble the fire and rescue visited.
With his experience, "all the new guys looked up to Rickey," he said. "Rickey was the guy at the fire department. He was there all the time." Moreover, he had patience to deal with newer firefighters.
Woods started working in the daytime at the station about five years ago, shortly after he retired, Waid said.
Singing in church was a major passion, to the point the only times people didn't see Woods at the station was on Sundays and one night a week when the choir practiced.
He was so active at church that Waid told others upset with Wood's death, "He's good."
"You knew where he was" with his faith, Waid said.
According to a daughter, LoBrena Rembert, Woods was born in 1951, and graduated from Dora High School in 1970. He moved to Lowell, Massachusetts, before moving back to Sumiton in the mid-1970s. He worked for U.S. Pipe from 30 years before his retirement. He began volunteering for the Fire and Rescue on a part-time basis before retiring.
In 2012, when he commemorated 20 years with the department, Woods told the Daily Mountain Eagle that after he retired, he wanted to do something to give back to the community, so he devoted time to Sumiton Rescue and Fire. Rembert said he loved to spend time with his family and the fire department.
Woods said, "I just felt like it was my duty to help out in my neighborhood."
Eventually he would be named Fire Fighter of the Year for the department twice.
"They've treated me like family," he said. "The guys here have always been good good to me."
After retiring from U.S. Pipe, he did more than just firefighting. He took classes at Bevill State Community College. He loved to grill and loved to serve at his church, where he was a Sunday school teacher and singer.
"My life has been great. I have no complaints," he said in 2012. "I've had bad times, but God has always turned them to good." He went on to say that he felt God had given him a gift "to help people when they are sick or their house is on fire and be able to minister to them. My goal is just to be able to satisfy God."
Rembert said Woods belonged to two spiritual singing groups, the W.J. Nichols Male Chorus and the W.J. Nichols Ensemble.
Woods had five children and three grandchildren, she said.
Rembert said it has been "amazing" to see the reactions and the plans that firemen have made for his funeral.
"I didn't realize he touched so many people's lives," she said.
Meanwhile, Waid said the department is following federal guidelines to note Woods was on duty during the time of the pandemic.
"He was on the truck with the paid guys. He had come into contact with a tremendous amount of people with COVID," he said. "The (Alabama) Fire College has already reached out to me, and we've started the paperwork of getting ready to submit. We're still waiting on the death certificate, but we're pretty positive it is going to be a COVID death."
Waid said that Woods was a volunteer who covered shifts, as both career men and volunteers cover shifts. He was with career men Monday through Friday in the daytime.
Although the firemen are not tested unless they show signs of symptoms, Waid said he has undergone a test and is awaiting results.
"I don't know that I will be able to make the funeral, which is about to aggravate me. I feel OK but it is what it is," he said. No one else is being quarantined from the department.