By Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 31, 2008
His colleagues said it was no surprise that Fairfax County police Lt. Frank J. Stecco volunteered to climb into the cold waters of Pohick Bay last week to help the police helicopter unit practice rescuing people. "That's what he did," said Officer Mark Yawornicky, who worked with Stecco at the Mount Vernon station. "He would help out whenever he could. He would take care of his people."
And when Stecco began spending time with kids, in addition to his three children, in an anti-gang program at his station, it provided him with another avenue to help others. So he successfully requested a transfer to the Youth Services Division just last month.
Stecco's vision of service to others was cut short when he drowned during the training exercise in Pohick Bay, in southeastern Fairfax. Police are still investigating the accident. Yesterday, after a procession past the Mount Vernon station and a memorial service in Woodbridge, Stecco was buried at Quantico National Cemetery.
Stecco, 42, spent 19 years on the Fairfax force after a four-year stint in the Marines at Quantico. He was honored for heroism three times during his years on patrol: for rescuing a man from a burning mobile home in 1993, for disarming a shooting suspect in 1996 and for disarming a bleeding, suicidal man in 1999.
Looking at Stecco's wife and children during the memorial service at Hylton Memorial Chapel, Fairfax Police Chief David M. Rohrer said: "Your father was not only a hero to you, he was a courageous man and hero to many. . . . Let us honor him with the same courage, resolve, resiliency, professionalism and devotion to duty that he demonstrated every day."
Stecco was married for 18 years to Julie Stecco and had three children: Maria, 16, Nicholas, 13, and Alexander, 10. He is also survived by his mother, Lorraine Stecco of Throop, Pa., a suburb of Scranton, and his sister, Kathryn Stecco of Palo Alto, Calif.
On Oct. 21, Stecco volunteered to play a victim in a training exercise in which he would be rescued by the police helicopter. But something went wrong during the exercise, and Stecco disappeared. After an intensive four-day search, his body was found in Pohick Bay, about 100 feet from where he had last been seen.
"To give one's life while teaching another to save lives," Fairfax Supervisor Gerald W. Hyland (D-Mount Vernon) said, "is the consummate sacrifice, and Lt. Frank Stecco did that."
A procession of about 60 family and police cars carried Stecco's coffin past the Mount Vernon station yesterday morning, where he spent 11 of his 19 years with the Fairfax department. A police cruiser draped in black bunting and adorned with flowers was parked out front, and a line of officers and firefighters stood at attention and saluted as Stecco's white hearse passed.
Officer Steve Cicinato of the Mount Vernon station said Stecco was "an all-around great guy. If an officer got in trouble, he'd counsel them, work with them, because the discipline would come from him. That's how you take care of your troops."
About a dozen civilians turned out to watch the procession, including Tom Coyle, a retired Fairfax officer. "I just think it's real important," he said, "to honor an officer who died while on an exercise to support the citizens of this community. He wasn't out there doing the backstroke; he was doing something important. He died doing exactly what a good officer would do."
Officer Kevin L. Webb left a poem near the car honoring Stecco outside the station: "Frank loved working 'The Highway,' and to spend his final day, in a boat on a river, he wouldn't have had it any other way."
The procession then headed to the chapel in Woodbridge, where a funeral Mass was said by his pastor, the Rev. Michael J. Bazan of Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Manassas.
"We all feel a loss," Bazan said, "because a good man no longer is with us, in one sense. . . . We don't say goodbye; we say farewell. You served God and your people well. Now go and receive your reward from your heavenly father."
Rohrer said Stecco was renowned for his sense of humor. "I won't talk about all the pranks I've heard about these last few days," the chief said. "Hopefully, God has a sense of humor."
The chief noted that Stecco "gravitated towards programs like 'Road DAWG' [the police's Don't Associate With Gangs summer camps], where he demonstrated a passion for youth." After two summers working on Road DAWG, Rohrer said, Stecco lobbied for his first assignment outside of patrol and was assigned to Youth Services at headquarters.
While he was on the street, Maj. Sharon Smith said after the service, "people migrated to his squad. People always wanted to work with him. He did all the things he asked his troops to do."
A much longer procession of police and fire vehicles from across the Washington area then accompanied Stecco on his final ride to Quantico, where he was buried.
Stecco was the sixth Fairfax officer to die in the line of duty since the department was created in 1940.