BROWNWOOD, Texas (AP) — Hundreds of friends and family joined a funeral procession Monday for 39-year-old Shannon Stone, who was fatally injured trying to catch a souvenir baseball at a Texas Rangers game.
Stone's widow, Jenny, and their 6-year-old son, Cooper, walked hand-in-hand behind a fire truck carrying his casket on a scorching day in central Texas. The pallbearers included 10 fellow firefighters, men who knew Stone and some given their nicknames by the 18-year veteran of the Brownwood Fire Department.
More than 60 emergency vehicles were in the line of cars headed to a cemetery eight miles from the church. Trash collectors and farmers pulled over to join hundreds of people lining the streets, hands over their hearts, as the procession passed by.
Nearly 1,000 people crowded inside the church for a private memorial honoring Stone, with speakers fondly recalling his kindness, love of baseball and skill as both a firefighter and a loving father.
Fire department chaplain David Fair read notes from family members and friends. He kept the mood light, telling funny stories and offering a Top 10 list that actually had 11 items because, a relative joked, Stone wasn't the best at math. He said the couple had only one child because Stone loved Cooper so much he didn't know whether he had any more love to give.
Johnson County Sheriff's Sgt. Ron Russek II knew Stone for more than 20 years and worked with his father and brother. He found the service "uplifting."
"They really, really captured the essence of what he was — a really good guy with a good sense of humor," Russek said. "He cared about people, like a true servant."
Stone had taken young Cooper to a Rangers game in Arlington on Thursday night, interrupting the three-hour drive with a stop to buy the boy a new glove. They were sitting in left field behind Cooper's favorite player, Josh Hamilton.
Hamilton threw them a foul ball in the second inning, but the thrill quickly turned tragic. Stone fell headfirst about 20 feet onto concrete, with Cooper watching. Witnesses said Stone was conscious after landing and spoke about Cooper being left alone. Stone was pronounced dead within an hour; an autopsy ruled the cause as blunt force trauma from the fall.
Stone, a Brownwood firefighter since 1993, was voted Firefighter of the Year twice by his peers, according to the mayor, and had risen to the rank of lieutenant. He also worked as a paramedic, and as a rescue technician at Texas Motor Speedway. He also was involved in disaster relief following Hurricanes Katrina and Ike, and fighting wildfires.
"When you're married to someone that's a first responder ... you always are leery that you're going to get that phone call or you're going to have the chaplain come," said Trease Burke, whose husband, Scotty, was a Brownwood police officer for 14 years and is now on the Lake Patrol. "You don't expect it to be a freak accident."
In 2007, Stone and another firefighter ran into a smoke-filled home in nearby Bangs to rescue a woman in her 70s, according to story in the Brownwood Bulletin newspaper. He received a distinguished service award from the department for bravery and dedication, but explained the heroics as simply being "in the right place at the right time."
Scotty Burke described Stone as "a firefighter's firefighter." He recalled that during the town's annual, three-day reunion celebration, Stone cooked barbecue for the officers and firefighters working the event.
"He always did it out of his pocket," Burke said. Smiling, he added, "And it was good. I used to work in a barbecue restaurant, so I know good barbecue."
Like many leaving visitation at a funeral home Sunday night, Burke's voice cracked with emotion. Mayor Stephen Haynes said Stone's family was trying to celebrate his life, "but it's still difficult to accept, obviously, the nature of the death and the timing of the death and the way that it happened."
Many people came out of the visitation holding tissues, tears in their eyes. Most declined to be interviewed, citing the family's wishes.
"Brownwood is a tight place," Burke said. "When something like this happens, people come together and they take care of you."
Brownwood is a town of about 20,000 residents in the Texas Hill Country, some 150 miles west of the Rangers' stadium in Arlington. Flags across the area have been at half-staff since Friday, with several wreaths and a dozen yellow roses left in his memory at a monument outside the fire department.
"We're a small town," Haynes said. "We're not (small) enough that everyone knows everyone, but we are small enough that everyone is impacted in some way. Everyone has a friend or family member who was close to that family."
Haynes said there already has been discussion of a permanent way to remember Stone.
"Certainly we're going to do what we can to keep his memory and the honor of what he stands for alive for as long as we can," Haynes said.
Jarratt Lawler grew up with Stone in Cleburne, about 100 miles from Brownwood. They weren't especially close, but renewed acquaintances a year ago at their 20-year high school reunion. Lawler was so moved by Stone's death that he drove 3½ hours from McKinney with his pregnant wife and young daughter to pay his respects on Sunday because he couldn't make it to the funeral.
"He was an all-around good guy," Lawler said. "He was just always trying to help people, always did the right things."