NEWBERRY — Henry Johniken, a firefighter who died in the line of duty in 1900, was honored last week at the Fallen Firefighter Memorial at the South Carolina Fire Academy.
Johniken’s line of duty death was recently discovered thanks to Andrew Morris, engineer, and Michael Parker, firefighter, both of whom have been working on projects highlighting the fire department history in Newberry County.
“We stumbled upon some information that was unknown to us. It was a line of duty death that happened in the city in 1900. If you ask anyone around the city, or even the county, about line of duty deaths, only two were ever spoken or known of when in actuality we had another,” Parker said.
Parker said they know Johniken was a member of the Eagle Reel Team, but are unsure where it was located.
Johniken’s death occurred after the Eagle Reel Team responded to a fire that was on what is now Drayton Street. The call was to a barn that was on fire.
An article in The Newberry Observer described how Johniken died:
“One of the electric light wires was suspended over the barn on the incandescent circuit, and being burned in twain, one end had dropped upon the spot where the Eagle company were pouring a stream upon the flames, Johniken got entangled in the wire, and several repeated efforts proved futile to extricate him from contact with the deadly fluid, and he was killed in less than two minutes. The wire carried about 1,040 volts, and an effort was made to have the current cut off at the power house, but it also failed to be accomplished in time to save the unfortunate fireman.”
Parker said that when the team got tangled other firefighters tried to get them out, and they were able to get two of them out. Otto Klettner, chief of the Excelsior Hose Team, tried to help him and was injured in the effort. Klettner would go on to become mayor of the City of Newberry.
So why was Johniken’s line of duty death unknown until now? Morris believes it was due to the time, and the fact that Johniken was African American. Parker added that he believes it was because of it being 1900, and people did not keep records like they do now.
“We have a lot of records from the Excelsior, we have a lot of information the Hook and Ladder Company, the Excelsior Hose Company, but the Eagle Reel Team, which was the colored fire department, you can really only pick up snippets of it, and largely from The Observer,” Morris said.
Parker added that from documents they found, if the rest of the world could get a long the way firefighters do, by coming together, the world would not have any problems.
“They spoke about the Newberry Excelsior Team, when they received a new piece of equipment, they would hand down the no longer needed equipment to the Eagle Reel Team,” he said.
Due to Morris and Parker’s research, Johniken’s line of duty death will no longer be forgotten. His name is now listed on the wall for the Fallen Firefighter Memorial, where an eternal flame burns. Chief Keith Minick and Mayor Foster Senn attended the ceremony last week.
“The ceremony was really well done. It was the first time I had been to the Fire Academy and its memorial area. It’s very pretty,” Senn said. “I appreciated the State Fire Officials honoring Mr. Henry Johniken. He gave his life fighting a fire in Newberry. I was impressed by the brotherhood of firemen from around South Carolina as they remembered and honored firemen who died in the last year and those that died a long time ago, like Mr. Johniken.”
Minick said the service is as always a great way to show support to the families of a fallen firefighter who died in the line of duty.
“The support in the fire service to the members is more than words can express. Whether career or volunteer, it is imperative we do not have a name on the wall anymore. However we know the dangers faced at any given time could result in a tragic loss of one of our own. Henry Johniken was electrocuted while fighting a barn fire protecting property in Newberry. It was an honor to be able to memorialize him as a firefighter who suffered as a line of duty death. Even though we never knew him, it is the right thing to do for him and his family,” he said. “I would like to thank Engineer Andrew Morris and Firefighter Micheal Parker for the research they did in finding Henry Johniken’s event, and to Carter Jones – special projects coordinator at the South Carolina State Firefighters’ Association, for assisting them with getting Johniken’s name on the wall.”
Reach Andrew Wigger at 803-276-0625 ext. 1867 or on Twitter @ TheNBOnews.