Family of fallen firefighter Richard Sheltra on building his leg - | WBTV Charlotte

Family of fallen firefighter Richard Sheltra on building his legacy

PINEVILLE, NC (WBTV) -

It’s the one call you never want to hear. A firefighter is down.

The Pineville Volunteer Fire Department’s worst fears were confirmed the night of April 29, 2016. One of their own, Richard Sheltra died fighting a fire inside the Edwin Watts Golf shop on Highway 51. He was just 20 years-old and had recently found out he was a finalist for a job with the Charlotte Fire Department.

After an exhaustive investigation, authorities determined Sheltra somehow became disoriented inside the large store and ran out of air.

The blow to his family was unimaginable. Richard was Mike and Linay Sheltra’s youngest child – and their only son.

“We're members of an elite group of people that nobody wants to be members of,” Mike said. “We've lost a son. He was a firefighter, but most importantly he was our son.”

Linay still remembers the last conversation she had with Richard.

“Then he goes, alright - I love you, Mom. Alright, I love you son - see you soon, and off he went. I got a text [later], ‘thunderstorm coming; we're going to see some action tonight’. And that's the last I heard from him.”

Hearing the unimaginable news on that fateful Saturday night is still clearly etched in their minds.

“I open the front door and I'm like, 'you're at the wrong house',” Mike recalled. “I told [Former Charlotte Fire Deputy Chief Rob Kinniburgh] – ‘go away’.”

And as much as Mike initially refused to believe it, fire officials were at the right house.

“[Kinniburgh] said, ‘I'll leave - but you have to come with me’.”

The couple says they’ll never forget the sight that greeted them at Carolinas Medical Center-Main just hours later.

“200 firefighters lined down the hallways,” Linay remembered. “All the way to the end, down the side. Standing there, honoring Richard.”

“It made it very real,” Mike added. “All of the sudden, it became ‘oh my God’ - you knew, you knew you were there for a reason. Your child was laying there with the American flag draped over him. 

In the nearly 10 months since they have been slowing working their way through their grief.

“It's easier- I can get out of bed,” Mike admitted. “I can walk by his room. But it's never going to be the same.”

They’ve also been clinging to their faith - and family to make it through. They have a sign prominently displayed in their living room that reads, “family forever no matter what.” It’s been there for years – but Mike says it’s really become their mantra since their son’s passing.

Especially when it comes to the often painful reminders of their new normal.

“We were at a friend’s wedding and the mother of the groom got called up to dance, and Linay started going, ‘I can't wait to do that,’” he said. “I said, ‘honey, that's never going to happen’.”

Mike has often wondered why he outlived their son. “I've been pinned in fires, he said, “Um, I've stopped breathing, twice. I should have been the one laying there. But the good Lord has got a plan for this whole thing - we don't know the answers.”

Part of that plan is building their son's legacy. First, with last summer’s Cookies for Richard, the brainchild of their nieces. A way to show first responders gratitude in memory of the fallen firefighter. The family urged everyone to drop off chocolate chip cookies – they were Richard’s favorite – to fire departments, hospitals, EMT stations and police departments in the Charlotte region.

The grassroots idea spread quickly and cookies came by the thousands with first responders in all 50 states and as far away as Mexico and Canada being thanked in Richard’s memory– on what would have been his 21st birthday: June 2.

“I think every Charlotte and surrounding county got so many cookies and you walk in the door - and the firefighters go, 'where's the milk?',” Linay recalled. “Well, this year - we're going to remember the milk.”

The effort is one the Sheltras plan to repeat every year.

Then, last fall – they organized the first Richard Sheltra Memorial 5K. This year’s race takes place next month.

And, now they’ve launched the Richard Sheltra Memorial Foundation. Despite being just a few months old, the foundation already has $100,000 in its coffers. It’s objective: to pay it forward, a mantra they say Richard lived by.

“His life verse was John 15:13,” said Mike. “No greater love does one have than to lay down their life for a friend – paraphrased. What he's done through that has shown us, you know - take care of somebody else and you'll be taken care of.”

Their two biggest goals this year: Making sure every fire department in the area, particularly the smaller, volunteer ones have the proper turnout gear. Second, starting a scholarship fund. They plan to give out five, $1000 scholarships in Richard's name.

When asked who they want those scholarships to help, Linay said, “somebody as much like Richard as we can find. That temperament that, 'this is I want, I just can't afford the books. Or I just need a little bit of help’.”

Still, as much as they've thrown themselves into keeping their son's memory alive, they admit to still having tough days. And on those days, the place they turn to is where they know they are the strongest: their home. Particularly, Richard’s room where Mike said, “This is the room where, if you get to feeling really bad, you can come in here and sit.” 

Their son’s room has become a haven of sorts - filled with dozens of pictures, memorials, American flags - and even the helmet he wore the night he died.

“It smells like Richard,” said Linay, as she lifted the helmet close to her face. She recalled trying to get the light on his helmet to work - but couldn't - and gave up after about 20 minutes. “I just put the helmet over on that lamp just like this - and I walked away from it.”

She thought nothing more of it - until Mike showed her a photo the next day. He’d taken it early that morning while standing at their bedroom door across the hall. In it, you could clearly see the light on their son's helmet shining brightly like a beacon.

It had come on in the middle of the night.

“The light decided to come on,” marveled Linay. “So yeah, I believe that was Richard telling us he's OK. Absolutely.”

While they take great comfort in that sign - and say there have been others - it's their faith and being able to lean on each other that gets them from day to day.

“God gives you just enough to get through the day, Linay said. “Just enough.”

“We thank the good Lord that we can do that,” added Mike. “Between the two us, we have a nice little saying when we get weak. You know she's a rock, I'm a rock - and the two of us make a boulder.”

If you would like to support the Richard Sheltra Memorial Foundation, you can mail your contribution:

The Richard Sheltra Memorial Foundation
P.O. Box 471686
Charlotte, NC 28247-1686

And, if you’d like to sign up for the 2017 Richard Sheltra Memorial Race, click here.

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