A 51-year-old captain with the Anchorage Fire Department died Friday afternoon after participating in a training activity.
Jeff Bayless, senior captain at the Eagle River station, collapsed during a Rules of Air Management Training around 11:46 a.m., said Fire Chief Chris Bushue at an afternoon news conference. For the exercise, Bayless wore an air mask and tank to measure his oxygen intake while walking through a parking lot, up six flights of stairs and back down again for 10 minutes.
"It is a very routine, but very strenuous physical activity," Bushue said. "He completed the training activity well and then unfortunately collapsed. We suspect some sort of medical event and he did not survive."
Bayless's wife, Gail, said she's still in shock. She said her husband of nearly 26 years was healthy, fit and "just go, go, go." A 3rd-generation Alaskan with a creative mind, he loved photography, canoeing, water, the outdoors and beauty. "We both loved beauty," she said.
And mostly, Bayless loved his job, his wife said. "If more people could be in a job that was so perfectly suited for them, the world would be such a better place," she said. "He loved being at his station, he really cared about his guys and he really demanded excellence."
About 20 firefighters, dressed in full gear, participated in the Friday training with Bayless at the Anchorage Fire Department Training Center, 1150 Airport Heights Dr. Witnesses said Bayless looked like he was "having a good time," Bushue said. The drill helps firefighters determine their limits, when they'll run out of air and have to turn around, he said.
Bayless finished the exercise. Then, he collapsed. Within seconds, Bayless was surrounded by paramedics. He was taken to the Alaska Regional Hospital, around the corner from the training center, where he died, Bushue said.
Both Bushue and Deputy Chief Jim Vignola were near tears as they recounted Bayless's death. They said Bayless was a quiet, polite man with a big heart.
"You know, it's exceedingly difficult. There's no way around it," Bushue said about coping Friday.
"We're a big family," Vignola said. "We're just a big family."
Bayless was a nurse before he entered the Anchorage Fire Department as a paramedic, Vignola said. When the department combined its fire and paramedic units in 1995, Bayless became a firefighter, as did Bushue. The chief called the change "widely unpopular," one that he and Bayless frequently talked about.
"I'm sure we had many conversations about it. We weren't happy about it," he said. "But we both definitely came to agree that it was probably the best thing to ever happen to the fire department."
Bayless rose in the department while stationed in South Anchorage and then landing a position as senior captain at Eagle River, Fire Station 11. In one incident in 2012, Bayless helped rescue a trapped and hypothermic kayaker from the Eagle River.
Gail Bayless said her husband loved running into burning buildings, something she'll never comprehend.
"He loved going and helping people at messy tragedies and he loved the firehouse life and he was just a perfect fit with this job," she said.
She expects that a public service for her husband will be held, but a date hasn't been set. Jeff Bayless, born in Copper Center, is survived by his mother and father, Patsey and William H. Bayless, three sisters and a brother.
One of his sisters, Rebecca Ann Bayless, said she never heard her brother say a harsh word. "My brother was truly one of the great men in this world who put his life on the line many times over to save others," she said.
The cause of Bayless's death was not immediately known, officials said.
Bayless's death is the first for an Anchorage firefighter in the line of duty since 2010 when 45-year-old Andy Mullen died from a form of cancer linked to smoke inhalation.
Reach Tegan Hanlon at email@example.com or 257-4589.
By TEGAN HANLON