Bells toll for long-time first responder’s end of watch

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When Michael Deroche Sr. was a little boy, he was terrified of sirens.

“His mother said he would always run to her side whenever he would hear anything loud such as a police car, ambulance and especially a fire truck siren,” said Roxane Deroche, his wife of 28 years who, along with other loved ones, mourns his death last week after 65 years of life. “Even today, she would say it doesn’t make sense how he was so scared as a child of sirens and now as an adult we can’t keep him away from not only the sirens, but fires as well.”

Decades have passed since Mike worked as a training officer at the Houma Fire Department, the position he held before becoming the second-ever director of emergency preparedness for Terrebonne Parish.

It is the hope of Roxane, along with other family members, that his legacy of public service will continue to be remembered. They also say that the former firefighter’s dedication extended beyond duty on the job, into day-to-day kindnesses done for strangers as well as friends. They recognize too that the last leg of his career, as chief of the Grand Caillou Fire Department, was marred by controversy. But it is their hope that the good he did will outlive and outrank an accusation that was never conclusively proven, and for which no prosecution ever emerged.

Born Oct. 21, 1950, he was the second oldest of five children raised by Albert and Delores Deroche, and grew up on Roanoke Street.

“All five of their children were very close in age and his mother had a natural ability to keep up with the five blessings that God had bestowed upon them as parents,” Roxane said.

The family routinely attended mass at St. Francis de Sales Cathedral, where Mike served as an altar boy.

After graduating Terrebonne High School in 1969, he completed a business course at Meadows Drawing Business College in New Orleans, commuting by bus. It was in transit that he met his first wife, the former Carol Schwartz. They married and had a son, Michael Deroche Jr.

Although he held a few random jobs after business college, Mike confided that emergency service was something that “made him whole.”

“He told me it was something inside of him that made him whole,” Roxane said. “It was kind of in his blood, the adrenaline, the not knowing what’s to come especially if you can help save a life.”

He joined HFD in 1974 and made his way up the ladder from firefighter to driver, to captain, district chief and then training officer, as well as arson investigator.

“When I was hired on in ’91, he was the training officer then,” said Fire Chief Todd Dufrene. “He was a real knowledgeable guy, he had a lot of experience.”

Mike had an interest early on the in the developing field of hazardous materials incident management, Dufrene recalls. “It was something new that was coming out and something that interested him, so he went full speed ahead into it.”

He instilled love of the fire service into his eldest son, Mike Jr., who still serves as an HFD captain.

The hazardous materials certification Mike received over the years served him well when, immediately after retiring from HFD, he signed on as assistant Emergency Operations director for the Terrebonne Parish Consolidated Government. He gained a reputation for being stern but fair.

Jennie Callahan, a long-time friend of Mike and Roxane, came to know him well during his time with the parish OEP, where she worked as an administrator. Her late husband, Mark Callahan, was a district chief at HFD while Mike was there.

“He lived to help people, period,” she said, noting that he would leave his home in the wee hours upon learning that a friend had car trouble. His dedication to protecting the parish, from natural disasters to the potential of those man-made, was unflagging.

“I had an association with Mike while he was with the fire department, and he would later be given a job as the emergency preparedness director, and I also assisted Mike during those times,” said Earl Eues, the parish’s current director of the Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness. “Mike was a great guy to work with. He got the work done, he had a good repertoire with other first responders of the parish … a great first responder as far as hazmat incidents go and hazardous materials. Some of Mike’s knowledge that he had on hazardous materials, he kind of taught me some things about hazardous materials, and I’ve been able to continue to use those in my career.”

In a move that some relatives bitterly describe as political, Mike was relieved of the EOP job by former Parish President Michel Claudet. But faith of one door opening when another one closes seemed fulfilled, when Mike became chief of Grand Caillou. The legal entanglements resulting from the allegation of impropriety by a female employee took a great personal toll, loved ones acknowledge.

“Everyone loved him at first because he was doing it their way, until he put his foot down and started enforcing rules and regulation, then it spiraled out of control” said Roxane. “Everything had to go to the board of directors, they would either approve or disapprove, either hire of fire. The fire chief himself had to go to the board about every little thing. They soon got tired of my husband and even hired a private detective to investigate him.”

Mike was dismissed in 2012. The employee filed a suit and was awarded a $25,000 settlement, with Mike admitting no wrong-doing. His own suit against the fire district resulted in a settlement of an undisclosed amount.

“He started dying bit by bit” said the still-grieving Roxane. In his final years, Mike’s grandchildren brought brightness to the dark spaces. He became grievously ill but had time to be made fully aware of the love and esteem that people held for him.

Departure from life came far more quickly than anyone expected.

Last Monday, at New Zion Church in Houma, the chaplain of the city fire department Mike never stopped loving officiated at a solemn service.

Firefighters in dress uniforms, those who know only what people who enter burning buildings know, gathered.

The Spirit of Louisiana fire truck, gifted to New York after the deadly 2001 terror attacks, and returned by the Empire State after Louisiana’s own Hurricane Katrina disaster, carried the former training officer to his final rest. The last call – the broadcast of a dispatch tone in honor of Mike, followed by the calling of his name – sounded over fire radios throughout Houma, and at the service itself. Then a chrome-plated bell, once used on a piece of Houma apparatus, rang out five times, three times in a row, the 5-5-5 signal denoting a hero’s passing that is a storied and sacred component of fire service tradition. •

Staff Writer Karl Gommel contributed to this report.

Michael Deroche Sr.