About a hundred people gathered at Vista Hermosa Sports Park on Friday evening, Jan. 6, to recognize the sacrifices and humanity of Jonathan Flagler, the San Clemente resident and firefighter who died in the line of duty a year ago.
Flagler’s name was emblazoned across dozens of shirts and hoodies of those who attended the City of San Clemente’s dedication of a memorial bench in his honor. The number “83” was also visible in red on the clothes’ left shoulder, representing the Los Angeles County Fire Station in Rancho Palos Verdes where he was stationed.
Flagler lost his life because of injuries sustained while battling a structure fire in Rancho Palos Verdes.
“Everybody loved Jon, so I knew today was going to probably be a big turnout of family and friends,” said Jenny Flagler, Jonathan’s widow. “He was very well loved. I couldn’t have asked for anything better than what was said.”
Friday’s speakers included Vince Roldan, the LA County Fire Department chaplain who played a significant role in organizing the event, as well as the department’s interim Fire Chief Anthony Marrone and San Clemente Mayor Chris Duncan, a fellow Talega resident.
“Jon was caring, courageous, and selfless,” said Marrone, the first speaker. “He embodied our core values, which guide all County of Los Angeles firefighters. We have a noble mission of putting our lives on the line to protect others, and Jon did that day.”
Roldan shared that the topic of scars was on his mind leading up to the event and expanded on how Flagler’s passing left a wound on all who cared for him; who won’t be the same even after their wounds heal and turn into scars.
He talked about getting to know the Flaglers over the past year. Their oldest son, 16-year-old Brody, showed Roldan how big Flagler’s heart was, and 14-year-old Jack displayed Flagler’s toughness.
“Jon was a great friend. He was funny, he was smart, and he cared about people. And I’ve learned all this about him from the people that knew him and loved him,” Roldan said, adding, “The beauty is that even though the man, Jon Flagler, is no longer here, his spirit lives here with all of you. Scars can be beautiful.”
Roldan added that everyone connected to Flagler could remember the fallen firefighter through the joy he brought to them at work, with his friends and his family, and how he expressed his Christian faith.
The bench dedication, said Roldan, was fitting as benches represented places of fellowship, a concept that Flagler embodied.
“I can say from getting to know Jon through his family that his loss has left a deep wound,” Roldan said. “But all of his amazing qualities that he had and installed in all of his family are what help them persevere despite all of the pain.”
Throughout his speech, Duncan fought back tears, pointing to the recent rain and cloudy skies as a sign of Flagler’s presence in the city—which the mayor described as “heaven for firefighters.”
People are always looking for leaders to follow, Duncan said, and the answer does not come in the form of self-seeking politicians or professional athletes.
“Jon reminds us (that) the leader and the hero we’re looking for lives right down the street,” he said, adding, “Standing up for his family, doing things to save people’s lives who would never find out that he did that.”
Instead of asking for credit, Flagler just went home to be with his family knowing he did his job well, said Duncan.
He added that he was proud San Clemente could honor the fallen first responder with the bench and a plaque, and advised the audience to be more like Flagler by putting others first in challenging times.
Duncan read off a separate plaque from the city that recognized Flagler and thanked his family for sharing their husband and father with the city.
The memorial bench first was purchased as a birthday gift for Jenny by her parents, and during the lengthy construction process, she suggested having a dedication on the one-year anniversary of her husband’s passing.
The city and LA County Fire officials got involved soon after and made the occasion into a bigger event, she said.
It was “surreal” that a year had already passed, she said, and that her emotions were heavy heading into the celebration.
“In some ways, it feels like it just happened yesterday,” Jenny said. “Other times, it feels like it’s been longer (with) just not hearing his voice or seeing him.”
On a positive note, she said the city has supported her and her family from the minute the tragedy happened through several events, including a candlelight vigil held in January 2022.
“It has been really humbling, and you just realize you live in a special place,” she said. “I know that not every city is like that.”