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Oakland firefighter hailed as ‘unstoppable’ force buried

Pallbearers of Oakland firefighter Caeden Laffan follow a funeral service aboard the USS Hornet in Alameda, Calif., Tuesday, July 10, 2024. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group)

ALAMEDA — An Oakland firefighter who drowned last month in Southern California was remembered Wednesday as an “unstoppable” force and a rising star in the mold of his father, a firefighter who died a little more than a year after the two began working together.

Hundreds of people gathered Wednesday on the USS Hornet in Alameda to mourn 25-year-old Caeden Laffan, who died in the waters off San Diego two weeks ago while in Southern California for the California Summer Firefighting Games.

It was the second tragedy to hit the Laffan family in less than four years. Caeden’s father, Oakland Fire Department Deputy Chief Sean Laffan, died of a heart attack while on duty in November 2020. He was 42.

Sabrina Laffan, mother of Oakland firefighter Caeden Laffan, holds a flag from the casket she received during a memorial service aboard the USS Hornet in Alameda, Calif., Tuesday, July 10, 2024. His brother Cooper Laffan is at left and his brother Connor Laffan is at right. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group)

The fact that so many people had to gather so quickly was almost unbearable for those left stranded on the crowded warship Wednesday, grieving.

“Today we remember and honor Caeden,” said fire chaplain Jayson Landeza, adding that he “will pray that he will be reunited with his beloved father Sean in eternal life.”

Laffan was at a San Diego beach on June 27 with other people “having a good time” when “tragedy struck,” Oakland Fire Chief Damon Covington said last month. It is not known whether the others were also firefighters, and authorities did not return calls Wednesday seeking additional information. An autopsy report has not yet been completed.

Laffan and his brothers spent their childhoods running around firehouses while visiting their father, a respected veteran of the department. Somehow, his friends and fellow firefighters said, Caeden Laffan and his brothers always seemed destined to follow in their father’s footsteps.

Both of his brothers, Cooper and Connor Laffan, are also pursuing firefighter training. The former is in the Oakland Fire Department training academy, while the latter is testing in the Sacramento Valley to become a firefighter as well.

Sam Caeden Laffan began his career with the Stockton Fire Department in December 2018, where he gained fame as a “super bright kid” who “was all about competing to be the best,” said Stockton Fire Capt. Justin Wilson, one of the men assigned to oversee Caeden Laffan’s academy.

Caeden Laffan left Stockton for Oakland in the summer of 2019, fresh out of the academy. The reason, Wilson said, was clear.

“All he wanted was to work with his father,” Wilson said.

The younger Laffan’s death prompted Chief Covington to order the entire department to halt training for a week and instead focus on the mental health of each firefighter, the chief said Wednesday during a ceremony.

“Sometimes you have to stop and say, ‘Let’s focus on the things that really matter,’” Covington said, adding that young Laffan was “one of those really special people.”

Dozens of firefighters from across the state came to pay their respects, including from Alameda, Modesto, Woodland and Rocklin. Oakland Mayor Sheng Thao sat in the front row, along with new Oakland Police Chief Floyd Mitchell, while officers and deputies from across the region — including Fremont, Walnut Creek and the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office — sat nearby.

The casket of Oakland firefighter Caeden Laffan arrives for a memorial service aboard the USS Hornet in Alameda, Calif., Tuesday, July 10, 2024. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group)

The show of support was “unbelievable,” said Justin Sylvia, a Sacramento fire captain who has known Caeden’s father since 2008 and whose stepchildren played baseball with the Laffan boys. Another of Caeden’s brothers also got his start in the fire service, working for the Sacramento Fire Department.

“It really shows that the fire department, no matter what patch we wear, we all represent the same thing,” Sylvia said.

The last weeks of Caeden’s life gave us insight into his unbridled energy.

One day he played pickleball for hours, the next day Australian rules football, flag football and basketball. The next day he played football with his firefighter buddies, the day after that he played baseball with his brothers.

“The guy was unstoppable and had no shortage of confidence,” Cooper Laffan said.

Then he went to Japan for two weeks “hopping around the world,” and then to Hawaii to deep-sea fish, skydive, cliff jump and swim with sharks four miles off the coast. Just days after his return, he went to San Diego for the California Firefighter Summer Games to play pickleball, basketball, beer pong and softball, Cooper Laffan said.

“I spoke to him last week and it was obvious he loved being here, surrounded by so many people he loved,” Cooper Laffan said.

It was their last conversation. Weeks later, standing before hundreds of fellow firefighters, Cooper looked at his brother’s flag-draped casket and hugged his brother Connor.

“Goodbye, Caeden,” he said. “I love you.”