The family of a fallen senior Anchorage Fire Department captain remembers him as a man of faith and generosity, after his Friday collapse during a training exercise.
Cynthia Starnes, the sister of 51-year-old Senior Capt. Jeff Bayless, says her brother was an avid hunter and fisherman, and will be deeply missed.
"My family's taking comfort in knowing he's with the Lord, but on the human side of it we're all heartbroken and still in shock," Starnes said. "He was such a good person, he didn't judge, he didn't judge anyone -- if he needed to give you the shirt off his back, he would do that."
In a statement from AFD, spokesperson Al Tamagni Jr. says 51-year-old Jeff Bayless collapsed just after 11:45 a.m. as part of an exercise in Rules of Air Management Training. The exercise was being conducted at AFD's training center at 1150 Airport Heights Rd., on the east end of Merrill Field and only blocks away from Alaska Regional Hospital.
“Crews on scene began immediate treatment and Senior Captain Bayless was transported to Alaska Regional where he later passed away,” Tamagni wrote.
Tamagni says Bayless was at a field exercise when he was stricken.
“It was firefighter training,” Tamagni said. “It was out on the training ground.”
Starnes says she spoke with Bayless at about 11:20 a.m., less than half an hour before his collapse.
"He sounded a little tired, but from what I was told he had just completed a training exercise," Starnes said. "And he passed it, which didn't surprise me at all."
According to AFD Chief Chris Bushue, who spoke at a press conference Friday afternoon, the department is calling Bayless’s passing a death in the line of duty -- the department’s first in four years.
Bayless had been with AFD for 19 years. He spent time working in South Anchorage, but was more recently with Eagle River’s Fire Station 11.
Bayless often spoke with Channel 2 at the scenes of fires and other rescue incidents. Last year he was honored with the Red Cross of Alaska’s Wilderness Rescue Heroes Award, along with other members of Station 11, for a water rescue on the Eagle River.
On a personal level, Bushue says he knew Bayless for many years.
“We had similar experiences in the fire department paramedics, separate from the firefighters,” Bushue said. “We were brought on board to become firefighters at that time.”
Jim Vignola, AFD's deputy chief, says that while firefighters acknowledge the possibility of losing comrades, they weren't prepared to lose Bayless the way they did Friday.
"You don't expect it when you're training," Vignola said. "You expect it when, you know, a roof collapses or there's a flashover or -- you just don't expect it when you're working side-by-side and sitting in the class with your brother one minute, and he's trying to help save your life."
Bushue says that while crews couldn't save Bayless, there are few places in Anchorage where he would have had a better chance of living when he collapsed.
"For someone to have one of these events (and) within literally seconds be surrounded by paramedics with equipment at the right time, and then the exceptional care Capt. Bayless was given at the hospital -- if there was a way he could have survived it, this would have been it," Bushue said.
Starnes echoed that sentiment Friday night.
"My family is extremely grateful to the fire department for what they tried to do this morning and save him," Starnes said.
Channel 2's Samantha Angaiak and Ashleigh Ebert contributed information to this story.