'The house that Eric built'

Willingham tapped to lead Sealy FD

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Nov. 20, 2017, is a date etched in the minds of many Sealy residents.

Kenny Willingham spent that morning with his best friend Eric Zapalac, Sealy Fire Department’s former chief.

“Me and Eric were doing a pre-plan … He had just dropped me off at the school to have lunch with [my son] Travis,” Willingham said. “We had just finished eating lunch and we were in the book fair, and I got a phone call from his wife.”

Zapalac, just 39 years old, was dead.

Zapalac graduated from Sealy High School in 1996, while Willingham was class of ’96 at Bellville. The pair went to EMT and paramedic school together and served as the best man in each other’s weddings. Willingham later went on to become assistant chief under Zapalac’s command and has served the department for 17 years.

And that day in November, Willingham, who was one of the last people to see Zapalac alive, said his buddy wasn’t showing any signs of discomfort even though he reportedly was suffering from heart complications.

“He was normal, energetic,” Willingham said. “He didn’t complain of anything, didn’t say anything.”

Once the word got out that Zapalac had passed, the brotherhood of firefighters circled the wagons, as they are known to do. Harris County Emergency Services District No. 48 covered the Sealy station’s calls on the day of Zapalac’s passing, and Bellville Fire Department covered the station on the day of his funeral.

“It has brought out the best in this department,” Willingham said. “He did so much for this place. The time and hours he put into this place … We didn’t really find out all he did until he passed away.”

The brotherhood also has embraced Zaplac’s widow Kelly and mother Judy, who works at the fire department. Just last weekend, Willingham took Zapalac’s son fishing.

“They’ll always be part of the family,” he said.

With just 20 paid firefighters on staff, the Sealy Fire Department is always seeking volunteers. Cliff Langton is now the assistant chief, and five captains plus one senior captain – longtime friend Randy Oswald – round out the group. Many of the “brothers” also serve together full-time at the Houston Fire Department.

Last month alone, the Sealy department responded to 59 calls. In addition to fires, they serve as first responders for Austin County EMS and respond to medic calls. One program Zapalac was proud of was the fire prevention program, which is taken to local schools, Mother’s Day Out programs, scouting troops and more.

“It takes five captains to fill his shoes,” Willingham said of his friend Zapalac. “We’re doing it a little differently than he would’ve done because I need more help.”

The new chief agreed to an interview this week with The Sealy News, asking only that the story focus more on Zapalac than himself.

“Eric built this place,” he said. “We call it the house that Eric built."

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