When Jonathan Upton was looking for a mentor after joining the Glendale Volunteer Fire Department, he found one in Jonathan French.
“Whenever I had a question, he would answer it to his best,” Upton wrote in an email. “He was one heck of a firefighter. If you had a question about firefighting, he was the man to ask.”
Upton and French became friends about three years ago. Volunteering for the fire department was at the heart of that bond.
“He loved firefighting,” Upton said.
It was no surprise to anyone French responded when the pager system went off in the early morning hours Wednesday to put out a vehicle fire in the southbound lanes of Interstate 65. He was joined by his mother, Lisa French, and uncle, Glendale Fire Chief Richard Peters.
That was at 2:54 a.m.
A little more than 30 minutes later, French, 25, of Glendale, was killed when a tractor-trailer driven by John M. Hatton, 44, of Covington, collided with the fire trucks on the side of the interstate at the 87-mile marker. French’s mother, 43, was seriously injured in the collision and was airlifted to University Hospital in Louisville. Her condition wasn’t available Wednesday afternoon.
Peters and Lisa French, a resident of Eastview, are brother and sister.
It was Peters who issued a “May Day” call from the crash site shortly before Kentucky State Police were called to the scene at 3:28 a.m.
French was pronounced dead at the scene from blunt force trauma. His death is the first for an on-duty firefighter in Hardin County since July 5, 1970, when Leroy Mike Miller of the Elizabethtown Fire Department was electrocuted while battling a fire at the Firestone store.
Rineyville Volunteer Fire Department Chief Shane Crutcher called the Frenches, “true professionals” in firefighting. He said he knew them from various classes and training firefighters regularly attend.
Jonathan’s Facebook page is filled with logos honoring fallen firefighters and those who lost their lives in the 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States. It also features pictures of fire trucks as well as posts about training and work sessions for the department.
The Frenches have devoted more than a decade of service as volunteers with the Glendale Fire Department. According to his Facebook page, Jonathan joined the fire department on Jan. 2, 2011. Crutcher said he believed Lisa has served about seven years on the Glendale department and previously was on the Stephensburg Volunteer Fire Department.
“This is a tragic loss for everybody in the Glendale Fire Department,” Crutcher said.
According to KSP Post 4 spokesman Jeff Gregory, the Frenches were on the side of Hatton’s tractor trailer struck the other fire truck. No charges have been filed against Hatton, who was uninjured in the crash. Gregory said his rate of speed had not been determined and is part of the ongoing investigation.
Hatton stopped his vehicle immediately after the crash, Gregory said. Where Hatton was coming from and going to was unknown Wednesday, he said.
French’s body was taken to the state medical examiner’s office in Louisville on Wednesday afternoon with an emergency personnel escort.
The three Glendale firefighters were in the final stages of extinguishing the van fire when the crash occurred. Gregory said the fire trucks had emergency lights operating to alert motorists when the collision happened.
“They were out there doing what they have been trained to do,” Crutcher said.
Southbound lanes were closed from the time of the crash until about 2:30 p.m.
The investigation is being handled by KSP accident reconstructionist Trooper Bryan Washer. KSP was assisted at the scene by the Central Hardin Fire Department, the Elizabethtown Fire Department, Commercial Vehicle Enforcement, Hardin County EMS and the Hardin County Coroner’s Office.
The crash came on the heels of a four-day state firefighters association convention in Hardin County that ended Tuesday night. On Sunday as part of the event, a memorial service was held at First Christian Church in Elizabethtown remembering three fallen firefighters in the last year in Kentucky.
The 23-member Glendale department has been taken offline and their calls will be handled by a number of other departments until further notice.
French, who attended Central Hardin High School, enjoyed hunting and University of Kentucky basketball. But firefighting was his passion.
“He knew fire equipment in and out like the back of his hand,” Upton said. “He loved keeping the fire trucks clean. He took his firefighting seriously. He was one heck of a good man.”