Cliff’s Last Alarm
Cliff Sligar was a firefighter long before he was old enough to join the Wheeling Fire Department. During his formative years, it was no secret that he could be found more often at a local firehouse than in a classroom. If there was a big fire in the city, Cliff was there no matter what time of the day or night. It was destiny that he would some day serve as fire chief for his beloved city.
And that’s just what he did — from 1971 to 1995. Cliff died this week at home surrounded by family. While firefighters battle flames and rush to aid others, the dangers they face can take their toll long after retirement. In true firefighter fashion, Cliff battled and beat cancer. He died of natural causes at age 88.
Cliff was a fighter in more ways than one. As chief, he acknowledged the increasing dangers his firefighters faced and did something about it. He strong-armed city council members — when necessary — to bring about funds for increased safety measures for his department. He rarely lost his appeals to city fathers.
Even if he butted heads with officials on the council floor, they just might share a laugh and beer afterward.
Cliff was responsible for bringing the EMT and then paramedic programs to the fire department and was a proponent of serious training within the ranks. That concept was never more apparent than on the day a tractor trailer crashed on the Fort Henry Bridge and the cab of the truck hung over the Ohio River with the driver still inside. Cliff’s friend and fellow firefighter Bill Kleeh was hoisted over the river to bring about the safe rescue of the terrified truck driver. Ironically, Kleeh later lost his life to illness while on the department.
Cliff also caused some stir when he decided the fire department’s trucks and other vehicles would be painted bright orange rather than the standard red color. There was some reasoning that orange was more visible than red. It took a while, but soon the public got used to seeing those orange trucks with a new WFD logo.
Cliff was a friend to the media. He never refused an interview and returned phone calls at all hours.
He was approachable even on a fire scene. During a particularly tragic fire in Warwood, I saw Cliff overcome with emotion as a young mother and her children lost their lives in the blaze. He showed a human side despite a tough job.
But even a more personal tragedy would follow.
Cliff told me the worst day in his career was in 1991 when Assistant Fire Chief Bob Foster lost his life while fighting a fire in Center Wheeling.
That hit Cliff hard as it did the entire department. He then initiated even more stringent safety measures to keep fire crews safer on the job.
When Cliff retired in 1995, he didn’t stop working. He helped formulate the Belmont County 911 Center in St. Clairsville where he brought his years of experience to that side of the river.
However, it was on Easter Day in 1996 that Cliff came out of retirement when it was reported that the Imperial Display stores on Main Street in downtown Wheeling were on fire. He always said it was the one fire that would put him back in a bunker coat. And for that day, he assisted in the multi-alarm fire without any serious harm to those battling the blaze. This newspaper printed a picture of Cliff atop a fire engine as he yelled to those on the fire ground. He was back in the saddle for one last time.
Cliff was a great storyteller, especially when it came to his profession. In his later years, he “held court” at Perkins restaurant where he invited other retirees and new recruits to enjoy a meal together and reminisce. You could take Cliff out of the firehouse but you couldn’t take the firehouse out of Cliff. He and his stories will be missed.
I offer my family’s condolences to his wife Sherry and all of his family.
Heather Ziegler can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.