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Firefighter dies in line of duty before his wedding

She dreamed of standing at the altar in a white gown. Instead, she sat in the front pew, dressed in black.

On Thursday - two months before her scheduled July 31 wedding - Kara Homb buried the man she was supposed to marry.

As she grieved the loss of her future, about 500 community members gathered to remember the man who would "help anyone at anytime." 
Firefighter Kurt M. Meusel, 25, of Schapville, died Saturday while looking for an elderly man with dementia who had wandered from home. According to law enforcement officials, the volunteer member of the Scales Mound Fire Protection District was driving his ATV in the search area when he struck a deer, and the four-wheeler veered into a ditch and rolled, causing his fatal injuries. Authorities found the elderly man later that evening. 

"He was a good kid, a good firefighter," said Fire Chief Carl Winter. 

Winter said Meusel was the first firefighter in the department's history to die in the line of duty. To honor that sacrifice, firefighters and emergency personnel from across the state gathered at Thursday's funeral. They wore their dress uniforms and wiped away tears with official white gloves. Meanwhile, community members packed the Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church. They spilled into the basement, into the foyer and out onto the sidewalk, straining to hear what was being said inside.

"Anything Kurt did, he did with a passion," the minister said. "He was most passionate about helping others." 

As a student at Scales Mound High School, Meusel wrote about wanting to change lives, and the minister read some of Meusel's poetry in which he described himself as a man who "gives his teachers trouble, who gives his mom a smile and his dad a pain." Another poem ended with him saying, "If only I could help this many people."

This desire to help manifested itself early. Meusel joined the fire department as soon as he turned 18, fitting in his training between basketball and football games. When not fighting fires or working as a heavy-equipment operator, the man who loved cowboy hats, Chevy pickup trucks and horses spent time with the love of his live, Kara Homb, a woman he called his "Care Bear." 

"He absolutely loved her and was looking forward to their life together," said his mother, Susan, in a previous interview. 

Mother and fiancee left the church together, following the firefighters carrying Meusel's flag-draped casket to the fire engine that would transport him to his final resting place. The bagpipes bellowed "Amazing Grace," and the more than 100 emergency personnel saluted. Then the engine rumbled to life, mourners gathered behind the firetruck, and together they made their way to Meusel's grave, which rests directly under an oak tree at the edge of his parent's property. One by one, the firefighters advanced toward Meusel's casket, each laying a green boutonniere wrapped in a black ribbon. 

Scott Furlong, who served on the fire department with Meusel, said he would miss the man who "always had your back." 

"It wasn't his time," he said. "It shouldn't have happened. He was too young. He had too much left to do."
Another fellow firefighter, Brian Busch, shared the sentiment. "He was a good man with a lot going for him. He had just bought a house, he loved his job, he was going to be married. It shouldn't have happened now," he said. 

A lieutenant in the department, Ed Schamper, said the funeral was the most difficult thing he's done during his 25 years as a firefighter. 

"It's the hardest thing I've ever done, period," he said. "Kurt died helping somebody. And it could have been me. It could have been any of us. But it was him, and it's hard to accept that." 

Yet many of the mourners seemed ready to accept one thing about the loss. 

"He's with his Lord," the minister said. 

For those who doubted, his friends offered proof. During Meusel's wake the night before, thunder clapped and rain poured. Then suddenly, the skies cleared, and a rainbow appeared. 

"It was a promise," one mourner said, "It was God's promise that Kurt is in a better place."

(Photo Credit: Rich Sugg)