LORAIN, Ohio (WJW) — The benefits and shortcomings of social media are often debated, but two local families are crediting Facebook with solving a mystery that was decades in the making. The story began to unfold when a couple began cleaning out a storage area in the basement of their new home in Lorain, and discovered an old firefighter’s helmet.
Alicia Zadorozny told FOX 8, “it was like ‘whoa, what is this, where did it come from, how long has it been here?’”
The helmet had the name “Wilker” on it, and Alicia and Andrew Zadorozny decided to see if the firefighter was still alive or if they could find his family and return the helmet.
“I have a lot of stuff that was passed on to me, so I know how valuable some of the memories are, so you know some of those things I hold on to very dearly,” said Andrew.
They posted a story about the helmet on a Lorain Facebook page. “And I said ‘this might be a long shot but maybe somebody knows somebody who may know somebody,” said Alicia.
Sure enough, local firefighters saw the Facebook post, and suspected the helmet belonged to Clarence Wilker, a longtime Lorain firefighter who served 25 years on the department. Photos found in the archives of the Morning Journal show Clarence Wilker rendering aid to one of the victims of the fire on board the lake freighter, Roger Blough, at American Shipbuilding in Lorain in June 1971. The fire raged for days and claimed the lives of four workers.
Clarence Wilker retired in the early 80s and passed away in 1990 at the age of 58. However, his son, Brian Wilker, is well known in the fire service, having served as a lieutenant on the Westlake Fire Department before retiring in 2021.
Brian told FOX 8, “I get a text message from one of the guys I worked with in Westlake and another guy in Avon, and they both texted me that ‘hey, is this your dad?’ and I looked at it, I said ‘yeah, that’s the helmet,’ I remember seeing the helmet in the back there years ago.”
Brian says he has no idea how the helmet ended up in storage in the Zadorozny’s home, but he recalls the helmet was given to his father’s girlfriend when he passed away.
“When I retired from Westlake, I got my helmet and it’s a tradition on fire departments to give the retirees their helmets, it’s there for them to keep,” he said.
The discovery of the helmet is bringing back a flood of memories for the family of Clarence Wilker. Among them, a free trip to Cedar Point in 1971, courtesy of American Shipbuilding Chairman George Steinbrenner.
The late Steinbrenner, who would go on to own the New York Yankees, paid for the trip to the amusement park because he was so grateful for the determination shown by Clarence and his fellow firefighters as they battled the blaze on board the Roger Blough.
Clarence’s son says his father’s battered helmet embodies his fighting spirit and commitment to helping others in their time of need.
“I do miss him, you know everybody will miss their dad, but it does touch here a little bit,” said Wilker as he pointed to his heart.
The retired firefighter says he is grateful the Zadorozny’s took the time to solve the mystery behind his father’s helmet, which will now be on display in his home next to his own helmet.
“It’s some important memorabilia for us and they were able to give it back to us, because we completely lost track of it,” he said.
A smiling Alicia responded, “it makes me happy that the family can have this to cherish.”