Collins, longtime Nederland fire chief, dies at 60
Gary Collins, the former Nederland Fire Department chief who worked through four major hurricanes and who wrangled a federal grant to create a new emergency services building out of the old city hall, died Tuesday after fighting a vicious cancer for more than a year. He was 60.
Collins spent 39 years working for the city of Nederland, retiring at the end of January. He became fire chief in October 2005 in the wake of Hurricane Rita.
Nederland police Chief Gary Porter said he and Collins had been friends since their high school days and served the city together for nearly four decades.
“He was upbeat even though he was bad sick,” Porter said. “He was a genuine good guy.”
Porter remembers taking Collins with him on patrols when Porter was on a narcotics task force in the late 1990s, making traffic stops on Interstate 10.
He said Collins, as fire marshal, was also a certified peace officer, which meant he had the authority to make arrests and carry a weapon.
“And he did that on his own time,” Porter said. “He was another set of eyes for me out there. He may have unknowingly saved my life out there.”
Nederland City Manager Chris Duque said his 10 years with the city brought him in close contact with Collins, whom he called instrumental in securing the public safety grant to remodel the former city hall building at 1400 Boston Ave.
Duque said the city at first wanted to build a new fire station but couldn’t find land central enough to serve the city with the best response time.
He said the grant allowed the city to demolish the old station, gut the old city hall and rebuild the inside to house the fire and police departments and the municipal court. The facility also can be used for training and other functions, like the emergency management operations, which Collins also led.
Upon his retirement, the Nederland City Council promoted assistant chief Terry Morton to replace Collins, an action that Duque said made Collins very proud.
“He’s always been a mentor to me,” Morton said. “He worked through (Tropical Storm) Harvey, going for two or three days with no sleep. And he was feeling bad. A tough dude. If he could get to work, he came to work.”
Beaumont Fire/Rescue Chief Earl White said he knew Collins well. The two joined their respective fire services around the same time.
“It’s a tremendous loss to the city, the community and the fire service in general,” White said.
Local fire departments support one another through mutual-assistance agreements, like electric utilities do after major storms.
Fire departments in Southeast Texas are all aware of the potential for disasters, both natural and from sources such as petrochemical plant fires.
“Over the years, we’ve assisted each other,” White said. “We all know each other. I give my condolences to his family, his fire department and the entire community.”
Porter said he brought Nederland’s fire department “into the modern age” with the Homer E. Nagel Public Safety Complex.
Collins was the man who got the grant done, which was hard work, Porter said.
“We will enjoy the fruits of his labor for years to come,” he said.
Dan Wallach is a freelance writer.