Orange County

‘A firefighter’s firefighter,’ Jeff Holden leaves behind wife, infant son

The family of firefighter Jeff “Stan” Holden, who died at the stationhouse after a rescue operation Monday, say they are “utterly devastated” by their loss.

“Jeff was a humble man, who loved his wife, son and entire family,” according to a statement released by the town Wednesday evening. “He was a good son, a good brother, a good uncle and an awesome dad with plans already for future times with his son. He was a caring and kind person and the funniest man you could ever meet.

“He cared deeply for his brothers and sisters in the fire family and in other arms of emergency service,” it continued. “The support of the community and the fire service has been phenomenal. We ask that you please keep the fire service in your prayers.”

Holden, an assistant chief with Orange Rural Fire Department, died at the main station in downtown Hillsborough after helping to rescue a construction worker trapped in a trench earlier that day.

His body was transported in a processional Wednesday afternoon to Clements Funeral and Cremation Services in Hillsborough.

Assistant Chief Jeff Holden, 32, of the Orange Rural Fire Department died Monday afternoon, Aug. 13, following the rescue of a construction worker trapped in a trench on West Ten Road in Efland. Town of Hillsborough

His funeral will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday at New Horizon Church, 100 Horizon Place in Durham. Mebane and Lebanon fire departments will provide coverage while the Orange Rural Fire Department is closed Saturday during the service.

Holden was found unresponsive at the 206 S. Churton St. station at about 1:30 p.m. after going to take a shower, friends said. Neither the firefighters on shift at the time nor emergency workers could revive him.

The State Medical Examiner’s Office will rule on the cause of death.

The Orange High School graduate leaves behind his wife, Christa, and their 4-month-old son. The family lives in Hurdle Mills, north of Hillsborough. They would have celebrated Holden’s 33rd birthday on Aug. 26.

The Hillsborough Firefighters Association opened a share account for the family Tuesday at the Local Government Federal Credit Union, according to a news release. Donations to the “Scholarship Fund for Miller” account can be made at any State Employees Credit Union location.

Friends say firefighter Jeff “Stan” Holden had a passion for helping others and a smile that was contagious.

“The biggest thing he enjoyed doing was just living life,” longtime friend Billy Smith said. “There wasn’t a time that I ever saw him without a smile on his face all through the years I’ve known him. It didn’t matter how bad things were.”

Orange Rural Fire Chief Jeff Cabe called Holden’s death “devastating.”

“We sat down yesterday and tried to think about all he had done,” Cabe said. “He touched everything. We’re a small department; we depend on all our folks to do everything that needs to be done even if it doesn’t fit the job description. Jeff was one of those people. I can’t even fathom at this point what the impact is going to be on our operations.”

Deputy Chief Mac Cabe said Holden, who had been with the department since 2001, “will be forever missed.”

Troy Durham said he and Holden joined the department’s junior firefighter program in 2001 because of the 9/11 attacks. Smith signed up about a month later. Junior firefighters spend time at the station, learning about the job and helping with maintenance and cleaning.

“We were pretty tight-knit in high school,” Durham said. “We took a lot of beach trips together, did a lot of fishing together, and camping together. Through high school, it was pretty much the three of us.”

Durham took a different path after high school but stayed in touch. Holden and Smith left for Hampstead, N.C., to attend the Fire Academy at Cape Fear Community College.

Smith, who now works for the Durham Fire Department, recalled the mobile home they rented just out of high school and the “oodles of noodles for breakfast, lunch and dinner” budget that left them with a little beer money. Holden picked on him for years about the barn door he built for his bedroom, Smith said, because it didn’t have a door when they moved in.

Holden was an avid fisherman and “always goofing off or impersonating somebody or something, always joking around,” Durham said.

“At the same time, he was very serious about what he did and how he did it,” Durham said.

‘Way too young’

Holden’s family also was his passion, friends said, and he shared a close relationship with his parents, Newton and Kathy Holden, his sister April, and his wife and son. Smith said he also looked after his extended family in the fire service.

Holden was his captain for a while when he worked at Orange Rural, Smith said, and also was the department’s chief of training. He was promoted to assistant chief in 2016, the department reported, and also volunteered at another local fire department.

“It’s way too young to be gone, and there was so much more of life for him to live and teach other people,” Smith said. “The job he did as a fireman, he was one of the best ones I ever worked with. The passion he gave to it was unlike anything I’ve ever seen anybody else give to the service.”

As the Orange Rural training and safety chief, Holden hired and trained new firefighters, according to a new release, and he also served as the department’s recruiter and lead liaison for the Fire Safety and Technology Program at Orange High School.

He was certified by the Office of the State Fire Marshal to train firefighters working at every department in Orange County.

Jeff Cabe said Holden’s first 30 days in 2003 were spent answering calls for a train derailment, arson fire, commercial fire, fatal house fire, hazardous materials spill and a vehicle pin-in with multiple casualties. He helped thousands of people, Cabe said.

“He was a firefighter’s firefighter,” Cabe said. “Most of the things a firefighter would see by the end of career, he saw in his first 30 days.”

Trapped worker

One of the last people Holden helped was a construction worker who got trapped under 3 feet of dirt in an 18-foot-deep trench on West Ten Road. Holden and Battalion Chief Jonathan Capps entered the trench Monday to free the man.

Orange County records show someone at the site just west of the Mt. Willing Road intersection called 911 shortly before 11 a.m. Monday. The caller told 911 the worker was inside a trench box while the J.F. Wilkerson Construction Co. Inc. crew excavated around it.

The crew was attempting to pull the trench box — a metal structure that protects utility workers from cave-ins — ahead when “the wall in front of the box gave way and a big chunk of dirt rushed in on him,” the caller said. The dirt pinned the worker’s legs.

Firefighters from the Orange Rural, Efland and Mebane departments responded to the call. Holden and the other firefighter used ropes to free the man within 40 minutes, records show

The worker, who was checked out at Duke Hospital did not have any broken bones, said Brian Wilkerson, project manager and vice president at J.F. Wilkerson. He is recuperating at home, Wilkerson said.

Orange Rural Fire Department, which contracts with the town to provide fire, rescue and first responder services to Hillsborough and about 64 square miles in central Orange County, has personnel certified in trench rescue, according to a release.

The station’s firefighters returned to work Tuesday evening, relieving firefighters from surrounding departments who had stepped in to answer calls to Orange Rural’s three stations. Firefighters who gathered at the department to share memories and condolences Tuesday said they aren’t ready to talk about Holden yet, Orange County Fire Marshal Jason Shepherd said.

The fire department’s Facebook page shows a black band through its logo.

The Hillsborough Town Board held a moment of silence Monday night. “We are grieving with our firefighters,” the town said on its Facebook page..

Trench collapses are one of the most challenging situations that rescue workers can face, according to multiple online sources.

Twenty-three deaths from trench and excavation operations were reported in 2016, according to Roco Rescue, which provides rescue training, equipment and services.

On the Chapel Hill Police Department’s Facebook page, Police Chief Chris Blue wrote that the community had suffered a severe loss.

“We are lucky to be in a community where the brothers and sisters in blue and red always work together, and that rings even more true today,” he wrote. “We are all one family. Our thoughts and prayers go out to Chief Holden’s wife, son, and entire family.”

Orange County Commissioners Chairman Mark Dorosin also released a statement Tuesday offering the board’s “sincere condolences” to Holden’s family, friends and fellow emergency responders.

Our firefighters and emergency responders are heroes that walk among us daily. They respond to and battle situations that few of us can imagine,” Dorosin said. “Jeff ‘Stan’ Holden was one of those heroes.”

Tammy Grubb: 919-829-8926; @TammyGrubb
Mark Schultz: 919-829-8950; @HeraldSunEditor