Thomas Hetherington died after his snowmobile struck a tree in the Adirondacks

MIDDLESEX — Area firefighting communities are mourning the loss of Thomas Hetherington, Middlesex firefighter and former Churchville fire chief, who died Friday in a snowmobile accident in the Adirondacks.

Mr. Hetherington, 46, is being remembered for his dedication and sense of humor and as an inspiring mentor. With a long career in fire protection, Mr. Hetherington had been a fire chief and was fire protection specialist/investigator with the state Office of Fire Prevention and Control. At Middlesex Hose Company he was third assistant fire chief.

“Tom certainly loved the fire service and his work,” Tom Mahaney posted on the Middlesex Hose Facebook page, where a memorial photo shows a smiling Thomas Hetherington in his fireman’s gear. “Our organization is better for his input and training,” wrote Mahaney, who is among many paying tribute to a friend and fellow firefighter.

On Monday night, people shared memories at the Middlesex Fire Hall. Fire Chief Jason Bassett recalled his first encounter with Mr. Hetherington. Bassett recalled pulling on his gear at the back of his pickup at the scene of a house fire. Mr. Hetherington approached and introduced himself as a member of the Churchville department. Bassett didn't hesitate to just say, "Get your gear and let's go." It didn't take long for a formalized mutual aid agreement to be reached, and before the Hetherington family moved to Middlesex, Thomas was applying to join the local fire company.

Other members of the Middlesex company recalled how Mr. Hetherington always knew how to lighten the mood and ease a stressful situation.

“He was a good guy, experienced, hardworking,” recalled Jeff Harloff, Ontario County’s director of emergency management, on Monday afternoon. Harloff recalled first meeting Mr. Hetherington in the early 1990s when they both served in emergency services with Monroe Ambulance. “He was very dedicated,” Harloff said. Mr. Hetherington’s work with the state Office of Fire Prevention and Control involved its arson bureau, and he also was a canine handler, Harloff noted.

Mr. Hetherington’s dog Taz was specially trained as an ignitable liquid search dog. The pair traveled to fire scenes around the state for investigations through the Office of Fire Prevention and Control.

In Churchville, where Mr. Hetherington was a firefighter nearly 25 years, ultimately becoming chief, current Churchville Fire Chief Andrew Vargo said losing Mr. Hetherington is “losing a family member.”

Vargo said he and Mr. Hetherington go back some 30 years when they were fellow teenage Explorer Scouts learning the ropes.

“He was just eager to learn. He just had a passion for that like I’ve seen in no other,” Vargo recalled.

“He would always challenge you to be better,” added Vargo. “I remember doing some drills and seeing who could last the longest on air, without running out. It was just a fun competitive nature …. Yes, with our air packs and masks. So he made it fun.”

Friends also painted the former chief as an avid outdoorsman, a dog lover, and a storyteller who could mesmerize a room.

“A goofball comic. Make you laugh,” Vargo said.

He was also remembered as an inspiring mentor who supported fellow responders in some horrific emergency situations, like one instance in which firefighters responded to a deadly accident only to discover they knew the victim.

“You know I remember hugging him and crying together,” said Vargo, “laughing together over the memory of the person.”

According to police, Mr. Hetherington was in the Adirondacks Friday night for the start of snowmobiling season in the North Country. He was driving a 2004 Ski-Doo snowmobile near Raquette Lake in the town of Inlet. Police there reported Mr. Hetherington may have been traveling too fast for icy conditions when his snowmobile ran off a curve and hit a tree. A friend who was traveling with him also crashed and tried to give aid, but could not save him. Mr. Hetherington was pronounced dead shortly after the accident.

“It’s not that he left big shoes to fill,” said Vargo. “It’s shoes that we are not going to be able to fill. We just need to move on in honor of him and that’s the best we can do.”

Funeral arrangements are expected to be set soon and are being handled by Perkins Funeral Home.

Includes reporting from Daily Messenger news partners News 10NBC and The Chronicle-Express