ARAPAHOE COUNTY, Colo. — A family that fights fires together stays together inside the “Animal House.”
“Yeah, that’s our little motto,” said firefighter Tristan D’Eboli. “Animal from the Muppets is our mascot.”
South Metro Fire Station 21 is named after a Muppet, and it’s full of characters.
“We just like the crazy,” D’Eboli said. “We like being busy. We like the riffraff.”
The Animal House attracts a certain species of firefighter.
“People that work here want to work here at Station 21,” said firefighter H.P. Wilms. “Not only do we work hard, but we also play hard together.”
The brothers and sisters of Station 21 give each other grief from time to time. They also call each other names.
“Everybody has nicknames,” said Wilms, whose real name is Herman. “We’re an extended family.”
On a Wednesday in early June, Wilms and D’Eboli started their shifts at the Animal House missing the head of their family, a lieutenant affectionately known as “The Godfather.”
“There’s a big void there, for sure,” D’Eboli nodded.
Lieutenant Matt Searcy started missing shifts months earlier, in late December 2021.
“It was just a sick callout, which was not rare at that time, and then obviously progressed from there quite a bit,” D’Eboli said.
Jill Searcy sat on her living room couch scrolling through photos and videos she captured over the course of months.
“Just seeing him like this - it’s very hard,” Jill Searcy said.
She barely recognized the image of a frail man in a hospital bed as the firefighter she married.
“Now, Matt is the patient and he’s the one that needs to be taken care of,” she said.
FULL INTERVIEW: Jill Searcy reflects on her husband's COVID-19 battle
Jill recalled the moment Matt walked into an emergency room at Sky Ridge Medical Center.
“He was in pretty bad shape,” she said. “I really, honestly, didn’t know if he was going to make it through the night.”
A positive test for COVID-19 progressed to pneumonia and Matt was coughing up bright, red blood, Jill said.
Matt was admitted to the hospital, and because of COVID safety measures, Jill couldn’t visit her husband’s bedside for more than two weeks.
“Just not knowing how he was and if was going to make it, it was very, very stressful,” Jill said.
Doctors intubated Matt, and as a ventilator helped him breathe, he suffered through staph infections, blood clots, kidney failure, liver failure and other complications.
“It was literally one bad thing after another after another,” Jill recalled.
She remembered the grave prognosis about Matt returning to his profession.
“One of the doctors told me that Matt’s never going to be a firefighter again,” Jill said. “And I just remember thinking to myself, well, don’t say that in front of him because that will crush him more than anything in the world.”
Days passed with Matt in a coma and nurses fighting to keep his fevers under control. Jill visited and sent daily updates to South Metro Fire and the Animal House.
“It kept getting worse and worse and worse, and we’re like, ‘holy smokes,’” said Wilms.
“Just harder and harder news to hear when it’s your godfather,” D’Eboli said.
Firefighters couldn’t visit Matt in person, but they cleaned his hospital windows and held signs of support from outside for Jill to read. They also helped take care of the Searcy family.
Firefighters dropped off meals so Jill didn’t have to cook. They took Matt and Jill’s four kids out to the movies and to go bowling.
FULL INTERVIEW: Matt Searcy talks about his COVID-19 battle
Then, the Godfather started getting better.
“It seemed like it was as quick as it went down, it went back up, you know,” D’Eboli said.
A crowd of firefighters, friends, family, and hospital staff clapped and cheered for Matt as he was wheeled out of Sky Ridge Medical Center and taken to a rehabilitation center in Denver.
“I remember waking up at the rehab center, and my dad was sitting there, and he’s like, ‘how long do you think you’ve been out for?’” Matt Searcy recalled. “And I said, ‘uh, a couple of days?’ And he’s like, ‘no, you’ve missed almost two months of your life.’”
Matt recovered words one day and balance the next. He relearned to walk and returned home with Jill and their kids. Doctors sent him home with an oxygen tank that he used for just two weeks.
“The miracle happened,” Matt said. “It just - it turned around.”
Matt credited Jill, a taekwondo instructor, for whipping him back into shape.
“My wife is the strongest person I know,” he said. “She wouldn’t let me give up when I wanted to give up on myself.”
Matt’s other motivator was the Animal House.
“I just miss the camaraderie with the crew and the things we would do as a crew,” Matt said. “I miss the trainings we would do and pulling hose and throwing ladders and hitting hydrants and just driving around and just laughing.”
Matt put in the work and started passing tests. He aced pulmonary function tests and treadmill stress tests at UCHealth. His scores cleared the way for him to start working out with the wellness team at South Metro.
He sweated through grueling workouts wearing full bunker gear. Trainers and fellow firefighters watched as Matt suited up in July for one last test.
He carried a heavy hose up flights of stairs, dragged a dummy across the ground, threw a ladder against a wall and climbed up it, and beat a fireman’s ax against a rubber tire.
Matt finished the course dripping in sweat. His recovered lungs took in deep breaths.
“Crushed it,” a trainer said to Matt. “Thank you, buddy,” Matt replied, still catching his breath underneath his oxygen mask.
Months ago, Matt could barely breathe, but he was finally fit as a firefighter.
Back at work
On July 31, 2022, the Godfather returned to the Animal House for his first shift in seven months. He was greeted with a banner welcoming him home and hugs from his brothers and sisters.
“Now, we’re excited,” said Tristan D’Eboli. “Super pumped. It’s going to be a really good day.”
“He’s part of the crew again and part of the family,” said H.P. Wilms.
The Sunday morning shift started quietly. Matt had time to prep his gear and share laughs with his crew at the kitchen table.
“You all got me back cause I missed you all,” Matt said. “I’m so glad to be back.”
Then, the first call came.
Lt. Matt Searcy and his crew of firefighters filed into the garage. Matt slipped on his coveralls and went to take his seat inside Engine 21.
“This is what it’s all about,” Matt smiled. “This is exciting.”
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