Published January 21. 2013 4:00AM
Norwich - When the East Great Plain fire alarm sounds now, former fire chief and 43-year volunteer Joseph Winski might want to jump out of bed and reach for his boots before realizing that he can just turn over and go back to sleep.
Winski, who will turn 60 soon, retired last week from a lifetime of volunteer service to the fire department that serves much of the city's west side. Winski joined the department when he was 16, served two stints as chief and last week handed in his assistant chief's badge for the last time.
"I'll be 60 years old," Winski said. "It's a young man's game. I'm going to back away and move onto the next phase of my life. I've got seven grandkids and an eighth on the way. My wife is going through cancer. When you get a miracle like that, it's time to make changes in my life."
Winski will remain as a judicial marshal at New London Superior Court, and said he would "be around on occasion" at the fire station, but won't take an active role in fighting fires.
"It's well earned," said Fire Chief Patrick Daley, who was re-elected to his position last week. "He'll be sorely missed."
But Daley said retirement often is only temporary at East Great Plain. Winski first retired as chief in 1999 after having served for four years, "but we had to draft him back," Daley said. To succeed Winski as first assistant chief, East Great Plain elected Roger Snell, the longest serving member of the department who retired just last year.
"You don't replace 40 years of experience overnight," Daley said.
East Great Plain has 60 active members and another 30 or 40 additional "sustaining" members who participate in various capacities, Daley said. In 2012, the department responded to 904 emergency calls.
"He's been through and seen a lot," said Deputy Chief Keith Milton, who also was re-elected, of Winski.
Winski said he would miss most those he served with and the people the department served. While many people have thanked him for his service, he said he is even more thankful for having the opportunity to meet so many people along the way.
"The good things are when you deal with people out there," Winski said. "I get more out of it than they do. You see a smile on someone's face, because they know me. Everyone has been so nice to me, they've done more for me than I could ever do for them."
Winski has seen his share of tragedies during his volunteer service. The biggest fire to hit the city in years destroyed the 120-unit Peachtree Apartment complex on Westledge Drive in April 2008. Fire officials later traced the cause to a carelessly discarded cigarette. Fire rapidly swept through the building, leaving residents little time to escape but all did safely.
"When I showed up for that, I was just in awe," Winski said. "I've never seen a fire spread that fast. The human tragedy. I overheard one conversation with a couple who had lost their son in Vietnam and all they had was the flag, and it was lost."
The massive fire brought hundreds of emergency responders to the scene as dozens of residents watched their homes go up in flames. But Winski recalled most the individual moments.
"There was a woman who was barefoot," he said, "and me and another firefighter picked her up and carried her away. When times are at their worst, humanity is at its best."
Serving in your own neighborhood's volunteer department also means the chance of responding to a call involving a family member.
When the alarm went off on Dec. 6, Winski recognized the address immediately, 206 Dudley St., his nephew's house. The call was for a working house fire with people trapped.
"I didn't know what I was going to walk into," he said. "My sister-in-law was lying on the front lawn screaming. I got to the house and two police officers were pulling him out of the house."
His nephew, Christopher Wydra, spent three weeks recovering from severe burns in Bridgeport Hospital burn unit. His sister-in-law suffered a heart attack during the crisis.
"This wasn't the first time I've responded to calls where family members were involved," Winski said. "That's the negative part about serving in your own community."
Service to the community runs in the Winski family and Joe Winski hopes it continues for generations to come. His great grandfather was a Norwich fireman and his great grandmother was the first public health nurse in Norwich. Winski's grandfather was a lineman for Norwich Public Utilities and his father, also Joseph Winski, was a police officer.
Winski's two sons, Joe Jr. and Allen, are firefighters at East Great Plain. Joe Jr. also is a career firefighter at the Mohegan tribal fire department.
"The tradition of involvement and helping the community has always been important to me, and I've tried to pass that along to my kids," Winski said. "It was a great opportunity in my lifetime. I met a lot of heroes. I'd be trying to help someone, and I'd see all the medals and ribbons on the walls. These are the heroes."