Key West firefighters, perhaps all firefighters, recount the years and their careers by the fires they fought.
Chief Edwin “Eddie” Castro, who died July 1 at 81, was on the scene of some of the island’s hottest and toughest fires from 1963 until his retirement in 1995. Castro served as fire chief from 1986 to 1995.
“The city had just opened what they used to call the Central Fire Station at Angela and Simonton when Eddie joined the department,” said Alex Vega, a retired firefighter, the department’s historian and founder of the Key West Firehouse Museum. “Eddie had retired six months before the famous Copa nightclub fire, but he was at the huge Overseas Hotel fire on Fleming Street in 1967. That fire was so hot, the paint on the sides of the fire truck and our red flashing lights were melting. Chief Castro was also there for the Cuban Club fire on Duval Street.”
He also fought the fire at El Siboney rooming house on Truman Avenue. The Key West city commission had just condemned the building earlier that evening. The fire demolished it.
“Chief Castro is really the first chief who started upgrading and enhancing the fire department’s training protocols and equipment,” Vega said. “He had to get our water supply and pressure upgraded. He got us our first fire boat to access waterfront fires. And he centralized our dispatch center so people could call and get both police and fire at the same time. Castro also was one of the island’s certified EMTs because we didn’t always have those. Firefighters used to just receive Advanced First Aid training.
“He really laid the pathway for other chiefs to follow when it came to improving the department. And those improvements ultimately led to the Key West Fire Department having a No. 1 ISO rating, which is something fewer than 25% of all U.S. fire departments achieve.”
(An ISO fire rating is a score provided to fire departments and insurance companies by the Insurance Services Office. The score reflects how prepared a community is for fires. While it mainly focuses on the local fire departments and water supply, there are other factors that contribute to an area’s score. An ISO score has the power to affect the insurance premium of homeowners in the area.)
While Vega recounts and recalls Castro’s hot career, his family cherishes and will forever remember a family man who was a grandfather to many more kids than his own.
“His grandson’s baseball team, the whole team, called him Papa. They were all ‘Papa’s Boys,’ and he was at every practice, every game, every band recital and play for his kids, his grandkids and his great-grandkids,” said Melinda Rodriguez, one of Castro’s three daughters with his wife of 62 years, Pat.
“He was a wonderful provider,” Pat Castro said with sadness in her voice. “He always worked two jobs until he became fire chief, including as a delivery driver for Sears for years.”
In retirement, aside from being a fixture at local baseball games, Castro was a popular volunteer and tour guide at the Key West Firehouse Museum.
“He was a great storyteller,” Vega said. “Firefighters from other states would come tour the museum and request Chief Castro. He was one of a kind and he’ll be missed.”
Services will include a viewing at Dean-Lopez Funeral Home on Friday, July 15, from 5 to 8 p.m. and a funeral at Fifth Street Baptist Church on Saturday, July 16, at 1 p.m. A formal fire department procession will leave from the church around 2 p.m. Chief Castro’s casket will ride atop a fire truck, an honor reserved for fallen fire chiefs, to the Southern Keys Cemetery, which is the final resting place for three other Key West chiefs.
“The county fire department is going to meet us up on U.S. 1 near Bobalu’s, and will have two ladder trucks forming an archway for the Key West truck with the chief’s casket to pass through on its way to the cemetery.”