Wairarapa firefighters mourned

By Don Farmer -

A brave 21-year-old Featherston firefighter and a former fire chief 60 years his senior are both being farewelled after losing their battles with cancer this week.

James Coombes, a rookie fireman reaching his prime, and Rex Allen, a Gold Star octogenarian, never got to meet in life.

Both died on Sunday, a black day for the town's volunteer firefighters, who have rallied to commemorate the memory of both men.

They will form a guard of honour tomorrow to honour James, known to his mates as Big Rig, who had only been in town four years but made a huge impression on those who knew him.

His parents Jayne and Peter Coombes, and his younger sister Lucy, remember James as a brave fighter who faced death more concerned about those he was leaving behind than for himself.

In his last few days, his strength sapped by the disease he had been diagnosed with only a year earlier, James insisted on going to a brigade meeting even though he was in a wheelchair to keep his attendance record intact.

"He also carted us off to the cemetery so he could decide what he did, or didn't like," said Mr Coombes.

The Coombes family moved to New Zealand from Suffolk, England, first living in Upper Hutt where James went to Maidstone Intermediate and later to Heretaunga College.

He got the name Big Rig because of his strapping build, nudging 196cm.

His great sporting passion - inherited from his dad - was football.

"James played for Eastbourne and Heretaunga but was only a recreational player when he came to Featherston," said Mr Coombes.

On the wall of James' bedroom is a framed All Whites jersey from a World Cup qualifying game given to him by a man he became friends with - Leo Bertos.

James had taken a job as an orderly at Hutt Hospital before being diagnosed, and previously worked at the Royal Hotel in Featherston.

"I like to remember him as one of the good guys of his generation," his father said.

James had a rare renal cancer that spread to his liver.

Sister Lucy, 18, said from writings James left behind it was Firemen lose battle evident he was not afraid to die. "He was just afraid of what would happen to those he left behind."

Featherston fire chief Colin McKenna said news of Mr Coombes death coming on the same day as his old fire chief capped off a very sad day for Featherston.

"James was a fine young man and his death has been a real blow for all of us."

A funeral service was held yesterday for Mr Allen, 81, who was for years the town's fire chief and, although he moved to Palmerston North late in life, always considered himself a son of Featherston.

At St Teresa's Church yesterday a lone piper led the pallbearers to the old No.1 Featherston fire engine - a Model A Ford - for Mr Allen's last trip to the fire station, as a guard of honour stood to attention.

Mr Allen had retired to Palmerston North but remained well regarded in Featherston where he had spent 40 years as a fireman.

He had worked for the Post and Telegraph department, was a top wood chopper and a keen member of Featherston Rugby Football Club.

As a fireman he completed his Gold Star and served a further 15 years, being awarded the Queen's Service Fire Medal.

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