A seemingly random encounter more than 1,300 miles from home allowed Dave Clifton to share a man’s last words with his family, bringing them some peace after 40 years.
“God’s timing is not the same as ours,” said Mr. Clifton, a member of St. Patrick parish in Rolla. “But everything is God-sent, and God is the real thing.”
Mr. Clifton and his wife Fran were seated in Yellowstone National Park, waiting to watch the Old Faithful geyser erupt.
As the water thundered forth, a man came up to them and said, “You two have the best seats around.”
Mr. Clifton, who grew up in St. Louis and had served as a firefighter in a suburban St. Louis fire district, noticed the St. Louis patch the man was wearing.
The man said his brother-in-law had been a firefighter near St. Louis.
They talked some more.
“The name didn’t ring a bell,” Mr. Clifton recalled. “But he said his brother-in-law died in a fire 40 years ago, when he was 28.”
Mr. Clifton immediately drew a connection.
“I was shocked to realize we were talking about a man I tried to save,” he said.
It was 1979. Mr. Clifton was working on Rescue Team 3 in the Affton Fire District.
“They called us in on mutual aid to help save a man’s life,” he recalled.
That man, a firefighter for a neighboring fire district, was helping put out a house fire when he fell through the floor and got trapped. The bell on his air tank was ringing, meaning he had only 3 to 5 minutes of air left.
Mr. Clifton and a fellow firefighter arrived and went into the house.
“He was trapped and we couldn’t get to him,” said Mr. Clifton. “We did everything we could, but we just couldn’t get to him in time.”’
The last thing Mr. Clifton heard the man say was, “Tell my family I love them.”
A while later, Mr. Clifton stood at attention as medical personnel carried the fallen firefighter’s earthly remains to an ambulance.
The man had not been burned. He had just run out of air.
“That whole experience made a huge impression on me,” Mr. Clifton recalled. “I’ve told the story of that man over and over in the last 40 years.”
“I’ve used it as an example about how important it is to stay together,” he said, “and if the bell on your air pack goes off, get out.”
Mr. Clifton and his wife moved to the Rolla area about 11 years ago. He joined the Vichy Volunteer Fire Department and started serving as a hospice chaplain for military veterans.
Mr. and Mrs. Clifton went to Yellowstone on a long-awaited vacation.
The other family had gotten together to celebrate a 40th wedding anniversary.
Once their connection became known, Mr. Clifton told the other man things he and his family had never heard about his brother-in-law’s passing.
The deceased firefighter’s mother and sisters were nearby. The man asked Mr. Clifton to talk to them.
“After 40 years! At Yellowstone Park!” Mr. Clifton marveled. “Here I was, telling the man’s mother things she had not heard before. It brought me to tears.”
He shared her son’s last words and told her he had shared the story with numerous other firefighters.
“His death was not in vain,” said Mr. Clifton. “He more than likely saved other lives because I was able to share his story so many times with other fire departments on my watch.”
Still dazed, Mr. Clifton told a priest at a church near Yellowstone about the chance encounter with the man’s family.
“God sent you here to meet them,” the priest told him. “He knew they needed someone to bring them closure, and He sent you to do that.”
Mr. Clifton still can’t get over the amazingly improbable timing of it all.
“I think God has a sense of humor,” Mr. Clifton stated. “He has taken me a lot of places and thrown me into a lot of situations I never would have expected.”