Before his untimely death, Henderson firefighter paramedic Robbie James Pettingill began to envision what a successful fire mental health service program would look like.
He wrote a plan down and sent it to department leadership.
But Pettingill, whom the department has said suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder in his 13-year firefighting career, didn’t get to see his plan to fruition.
Pettingill died by suicide on Sept. 17. He was 35.
“He was leading the charge to help us improve these important services,” Henderson Fire Chief Shawn White said at the memorial service Friday afternoon. “The foundation of what he started will live on.”
Pettingill was honored at Central Christian Church after a motorcade brought his ashes past Fire Station 97, where he was last assigned. A fire engine gave Pettingill’s helmet and uniform one last ride to the church before White helped bring them in for display at the lectern.
Because his death was considered a line-of-duty death, Pettingill’s service was treated as such.
The department’s honor guard presented the colors as bagpipes played from the parking lot into the church. The family received a folding of the American flag from his assigned station. The firefighters rang his last bell three times, representing the end of an emergency and the return to quarters.
At the beginning of the service, White remembered Pettingill as a determined and knowledgeable firefighter whose personality was seasoned with “comic and quick wit.”
White spoke on behalf of Pettingill’s wife, Rebeca Esparza, who he said described her husband as a romantic who always cooked for her and never left the house without leaving a handwritten note. Their first anniversary was coming up Oct. 17. And his best relationship on the planet was with their dog, Stevie.
White said Pettingill’s mom, Vicki, described her son as a strong-willed toddler who was always determined to get his way.
“His way was always a little different and quirky,” he said.
He started wearing skinny jeans and cowboy boots at 2 years old, joined a rage band at Green Valley High School and spent thousands of dollars trying to renovate 1980s-style panel vans.
White said firefighters respond to situations that are sometimes extremely stressful.
“Most of the time we show up and we make it better, and that’s why we love this job; we find such great purpose in what we do,” he said.
White called post-traumatic stress disorder a “a silent enemy … a predator who inflicts injury without leaving a visible sign.”
White encouraged people to break the stigma of behavioral health issues, provide resources and have the courage to be a voice of advocacy.
“Robbie learned the hard way about these mental health injuries. He was determined to get better. He reached out to his crew, he asked for help,” White said. “He did the hard work, and he got back to a better, functional place.”
But then, in May, his father, retired Henderson fire Capt. Scott Pettingill, also died by suicide.
The Fire Department pulled Pettingill from responding to calls and kept an eye on him, White said.
“The one thing we do know is that on the evening of September 17, 2019, at about 8:30 p.m., Robbie was screaming at the public safety industry to pay attention,” White said.
“Please, I’ll ask you to join us in listening.”
His sister, Nikki LePore, told the crowd that she was wearing the same black dress to her brother’s funeral that he had helped her pick out for their father’s funeral only months earlier.
They were five years apart, but she said she had prayed every night for a baby brother. She used her allowance money to buy him Hot Wheels and G.I. Joe toys. When he was younger, she would push bullies into chain-link fences for him. They’d gotten their first tattoos together.
He could pitch a baseball left- and right-handed and was a vegan, a cowboy. A “karaoke-singing fool” who would often dedicate Willie Nelson’s “Always on My Mind.” He frequently quoted Adam Sandler comedies.
“He was the fun uncle who always brought my boys way too much candy and really cool shoes,” she said. “He was my favorite person in the world, and he’s gone.”
She shed light on some of the demons her brother wrestled with: the calls of kids he couldn’t save, the wives’ hands he held as their husbands of 60 years took their final breath.
“Scenes that his tender heart shouldn’t have seen; he walked in some very dark valleys,” LePore said.
“We have to stop telling people who are in dark valleys to reach out; we have to start reaching in … I know Robbie’s at peace, and his pain is no more. There is no more darkness for him.”
Capt. Nicolas Sebastian knew Pettingill when he was hired by the department in August 2006. While working alongside Sebastian at Station 83, Pettingill loved to make elaborate meals during their long shifts and would often wake a groggy crew by blasting Spanish MTV to make sure they would share a meal together.
He never backed down from a food challenge, whether it was day-old french fries or a week-old Hot Pocket.
Sebastian said that alhough his co-worker was a capable firefighter on the scene, he struggled with alcoholism and two failed marriages. But after he sought help and met his current wife, Rebeca, he was “living with a purpose that I had never seen before,” Sebastian said.
“But, Robbie was quietly struggling, and it became apparent thiat his father’s struggles were similar, and they began to run parallel together.”
After his dad’s death, he wrote a poem to his wife, which his friend Raina read aloud Friday.
“Even though I feel lost and every emotion in between,” the poem began.
“My rock and my soul mate, my hope and my heart, thank you for everything you’ve done during this part. I know it’s not easy, but we will get through. I know my dad’s smiling knowing I’m here with you.”
At the end of the service, a slide show of photos and videos played. One video showed Pettingill the day he eloped with his wife in a Las Vegas chapel, a photo showed him playing with his nephews, and another photo showed him making goofy faces with his friends.
One last video played of the young firefighter in a suit.
“When you feel like you’re not OK, just know there are people out there that love you,” Pettingill said in the video. “There are always options, even in your darkest days, because I’ve been there myself. There’s always light at the end of the tunnel.”
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides free and confidential 24-hour support to those in distress. The organization can be reached at 800-273-8255.