Today is Lt. Roger Elliott Estes Day in our community of “Our Town Heroes.” Life is full of irony and the death of this 77-year-old public servant volunteer on July 4, 2022, was ironic and tragic considering his 40-plus years as a firefighter. Irony for sure.
He died while directing traffic on Highway 33 in New Tazewell helping his beloved South Claiborne Volunteer Fire Department (SCVFD) during a fund-raising event at a local business. He was struck by a pick-up truck and the driver appeared to not see the congestion before hitting him. Fellow responders immediately performed CPR, including Advanced Life Saving. Estes was rushed to the Claiborne Medical Center and passed away shortly after arrival.
Station 41 at 3722 Highway 33 and its 20 all-volunteer members play a major role in Claiborne County’s emergency services – responding to all fires, motor vehicle accidents, rescue calls and incidents involving hazardous materials. It was founded in 1997. Lt. Estes was the department’s training officer and had trained every one of these 20 volunteers, including Asst. Chief Jeremy Harmon.
“I’d like for everyone to remember Roger Estes as a true American hero,” Harmon said. “He was always the happy-go-lucky man who everybody wanted to know. He’d always lend you a hand and give you the shirt off of his back. He had a heart of gold and that’s hard to find today. He was always wide open, told us all to never give up and live for today, that we are not promised tomorrow.”
Around the station he was called “Ra-jah” – a name of Hindi origin meaning “prince or chief.”
“Ra-jah” was honored with a parade of fire engines and emergency vehicles and family and friends on Saturday, July 9. His casket rode atop the department’s Engine 2 in the funeral procession. In honoring him, the department’s Tanker was dedicated to his memory with a new number – 408 – Estes’ firefighting badge number on the tanker he always drove.
Before moving to Claiborne County, Estes was a 20-year firefighting professional for the town of Derry, New Hampshire. He also served in the U.S. Navy for eight years. After he relocated, he worked at Ferguson Enterprises in Knoxville for 15 years while volunteering at SCVFD.
Another piece of this sad story is Estes’ grandson – Devin Estes.
He followed in his grandfather’s footsteps and joined the department at just 11 years old in the Junior Firefighter Program. Now 26, Devin was there when his grandfather went down. “I was there with him when it happened. I’ll tell you, you don’t know what to do,” said Devin. “It’s very hard, but I know he wouldn’t want us all to be so worried. He was a real character. He’d crack you up. He could outwork me for sure.”
Harmon, the assistant chief, says you can’t replace Estes. “There will not be a replacement. Roger Estes was one of a kind. We’ll not see another like him. He loved this community and our department and the volunteer members he trained. This is tough for all of us to know that he’s gone and won’t be at Station 41 ever again.”
Earlier this week the Claiborne County Fire Chiefs Association presented a plaque honoring Estes to his wife of 54 years, Rita.
“He was a true smoke eater,” said Asst. Chief Harmon.
His memory will endure. On the back of a few of the department’s engines is a favorite Roger Estes saying as how he pronounced the word “alright” that defines his spirit: “It’ll be Aight.”
The department has set up a GoFundMe page to help pay for his funeral and other costs and here is the link if you would like to donate.
Tom King has served at newspapers in Georgia, Tennessee, Texas and California and was the editor of two newspapers. Suggest future Our Town Hero stories at [email protected] or call him at 865-659-3562.