Fire thieves and sour lemons

Among the friends and fellow firefighters who joined Michael Brigati (in tie) in front of Halligan's trademark fire engine were, from left, Jim Tash, Larry McClung and Mike Hickam. (Patty Kruszewski/Henrico Citizen)
From the time Michael Brigati was a boy, he loved words.

His favorite book? A dictionary. He was fascinated by the way a search for one word would lead to another word and then another, and spent many a childhood hour poring through the big book’s pages.

“Language,” he says today, “is like a magic carpet. It leads you to another world.”

So it’s not surprising that Brigati became a writer, and grew into an adult who expressed himself through the printed word — even as he pursued his full-time career as a firefighter, paramedic and rescue diver. While devoting much of his free time to outdoor recreation and adventures in kayaking, hiking and cycling, he also wrote articles for trade journals, toyed with the beginnings of a novel, and took online courses to help him polish his craft.

If not for the events of February 2010, writing might have remained a mere creative outlet and sideline pursuit. But that month, Brigati’s life took a tragic turn.

While at his house in the Outer Banks, he woke to a 1:30 a.m. phone call from a first responder friend back in Richmond.

Brigati’s 22-year-old son Matthew had been in a serious car wreck, and his friend began describing Matthew’s status in vague, official terms, following the script that responders use on such calls.

The script didn’t cut it for Brigati, who interrupted to ask for more straightforward language.

“Mike, you gotta come home,” his friend said simply. “Your son’s not going to make it through the night.”

Facing a four-hour drive to MCV Hospital, Brigati laid his phone on the seat and talked to it the entire drive.

“Don’t you dare ring,” he told the phone. He knew another call could mean only one thing: that Matthew had succumbed.

Somehow, Matthew — who had been planning to follow his father into firefighting — held on for another four days before he died of his injuries.

‘My spirit broke’
For the next six months, Michael Brigati’s life came to a halt. He could hardly think, let alone write, and contacted his instructor in the online writing course to say he was dropping out.

“I stopped living,” he recalls. “My spirit broke.”

Later that year, the urge to write came back all at once, and he found himself furiously at work on his novel. His daughter Kristen encouraged him to finish, as did the instructor in his online course, who generously invited him to correspond privately and customize the curriculum to suit his needs. The novel — a murder mystery featuring a family of firefighters — became Brigati’s escape and his therapy.

When the book was finished, he began the tedious, frustrating process of querying agents — some 300 of them. “It was like the pimple-faced boy trying to get a date with the prom queen,” he recalls wryly.

But in a random online encounter — after he idly clicked on a video depicting a firefighter prank — Brigati got to know Jennifer Skutelsky. She turned out to be a book agent, with connections to a publisher.

“Send me a couple chapters,” she said — and soon became his editor. The finished novel, Fire Thieves, was published in 2015.

‘The ultimate of lemonade’
Since then, Brigati’s book has become the centerpiece of his new career. He has retired from firefighting, and now divides his time between Richmond and the Outer Banks, appearing at promotional events, charity fundraisers, and speaking engagements.

Written as a tribute to Matthew, the book is now a tool for Brigati to do good in his son’s memory. At a typical book signing or speaking engagement, he donates a portion of sale proceeds to the host organization’s chosen charity.

On March 31, Brigati brought his book tour to The Halligan Bar in Short Pump for an event dubbed ”Steal a Pint with the Fire Thieves.” The promotion featured a smoked porter named “Fire Thief,” Midnight Brewery’s special release honoring Brigati and his book.

Shawn Gregory, Halligan’s owner and a retired Henrico firefighter, has aided Brigati in several successful fundraisers, as have Brigati’s firefighter brethren who come out in droves to support him. Several firefighter friends —many of them members of the Red Knights charitable organization — drove from Petersburg for the steal-a-pint event, and donations from the evening’s proceeds went to the Old Dominion Professional Firefighter’s Burn Foundation, which supports the MCV burn unit as well as burn victims.

“One of my best firefighter friends, Jerry Pruden — his character is in the book — is a main cog in the ODPFF,” says Brigati, who donates a free week’s stay at his beach house to a burn survivor family every year.

But ODPFF is far from the only charity that has benefited from sales of Brigati’s book. He can name at least a dozen organizations, and estimates the total amount donated at $25,000.

According to Brigati, the credit for that figure must go to his son, whose death was the impetus for the book.

“I wrote it as a cathartic thing. It saved my life, my spiritual life,” Brigati says. “Matt sits on my shoulder as I do this.”

As a six-time organ donor, Matthew has already given priceless gifts through his death, says his father. Now, he can continue to touch thousands of lives through the charities helped by the book.

“That’s the strength of this,” Brigati sums up.

“It’s the ultimate of lemonade — from the sourest of lemons.”

For details and a schedule of Brigati’s upcoming appearances (including a May 13 visit to Midnight Brewery) visit http://Firethieves.com.
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West End apartment fire injures 1


SEPT. 25, 10:30 A.M. – A West End apartment fire injured one person Sunday afternoon.

The fire broke out in the third floor of the Chase Gayton apartment complex in the 10 block of Chase Gayton Drive, near the intersection of Gaskins Road and Quioccasin Road, at about 1:20 p.m. Sept. 24. > Read more.

Crime Stoppers’ Crime of the Week: Sept. 25, 2017


Crime stoppers needs your help to solve a double homicide that occurred in the City of Richmond in June of this year.

On Wednesday, June 7, at approximately 9:53 p.m., Richmond police officers responded to several calls for random gunfire in the 3600 block of Decatur Street. They arrived and found the victims, two males, Christian Singleton and Ketron Wells. The victims were outside on the ground lying near each other. Both victims had received fatal gunshot wounds. > Read more.

Richmond Astronomical Society to present night sky astronomy at Libbie Mill, Varina libraries


The Richmond Astronomical Society and Libbie Mill Library will host a presentation about the night sky and its astronomy Sept. 28, from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Attendees will enjoy amazing views of the moon and other celestial objects with high-quality telescopes operated by members of the Richmond Astronomical Society. Guests will be able to see craters and seas on the surface of the moon with clarity and detail. > Read more.

Henrico home sales continue on strong pace


The number of homes sold in Henrico County in August rose 10 percent when compared to the same month last year, according to data compiled by Long & Foster. The average sale price of those homes – $239,975 – also rose, by about 4 percent when compared to the same average sale price in August 2016.

Henrico's jump in the number of homes sold was the largest in the Richmond region, though average sales prices in Chesterfield (8 percent increase) and Richmond (12 percent) jumped by higher amounts when compared to last August sales. > Read more.

Thoracic surgeon is first to perform 100 robot-assisted lobectomies in Central Virginia


Graham M. Bundy, a thoracic surgeon with HCA Virginia Physicians’ Cardiothoracic Surgical Associates, is the first such surgeon in Central Virginia to perform 100 minimally-invasive Da Vinci robot-assisted lobectomies (a surgical procedure to remove a lobe of the lung). The procedure is used to treat multiple types of conditions but is most often used to treat lung cancer. > Read more.

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Henrico County Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) will host its 11th annual benefit art exhibition and silent auction from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. at The Crossroads Art Center, 2016 Staples Mill Rd. The silent auction will feature about 75 bid items, including works by local artists, services and getaway packages. While viewing the “Into the Woods” all-media exhibition, guests will be able to learn from artists about what inspires their work. The event also will feature live music, a magic show, free hors d’oeuvres, food trucks and a cash bar. Admission is free and open to the public. For details, join Henrico CASA on Facebook, call 501-1671 or visit http://www.henricocasa.org or www.crossroadsartcenter.com. Full text

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