October 24, 2021

‘We had to do something’

Benefit aids family of deceased city, Marathon firefighter

Photos by Joe McIntyre/staff photographer

Cortland firefighter Ben Savichky sets tables for a pancake breakfast benefit Sunday for the Zelsnack family at the Marathon Fire Department.

The smell of pancakes, eggs and sausages wafted through the air as people bustled in and out of the Marathon Fire Department’s Morton Building on Sunday.

It was the department’s monthly pancake breakfast but this time it was different — the proceeds were going to Stephen Zelsnack’s family.

Zelsnack, 48, died Dec. 22 at Upstate University Hospital in Syracuse as a result of injuries he received in an off-duty car crash Nov. 30. Police said Zelsnack was eastbound on Sayles Corners Road in Sempronious when he failed to stop at a stop sign at Route 41A and was struck by a northbound tractor-trailer.

By the time the five-hour event had finished Sunday, the Cortland and Marathon firefighters who had been serving, cooking and cleaning had seen 420 people and gone through 110 pounds of pancake batter, 100 pounds of sausage and 1,500 eggs. They raised $4,420.

“We had to do something,” said Floyd Parker the president of the Marathon Firemen’s Association. “Our community has always supported our fire departments and when we lose a brother like we did it really hits home.”

So it was no surprise to Daniél Fish and her mother, Sandy Brown, that the place was crowded when they came to eat.

“It’s not just Marathon either, it’s outlying communities,” Brown said.

Zelsnack, a Marathon native, had volunteered with the Marathon fire department for more than 30 years and had been a paid firefighter in Cortland since 2001.

Derek Reynolds, left, a spokesman for Sunday’s pancake benefit for the family of Cortland and Marathon firefighter Steve Zelsnack, greets Syracuse firefighter and friend Alan VanDonsel during the event at the Marathon Fire Station. The event raised $4,420 in memory of Zelsnack, who died from injuries received in a December car crash in Sempronius.

Although he didn’t know Zelsnack as well as some others might have, Parker always remembered how Zelsnack would have a smile on his face.

Zelsnack’s smile is also one of the things his brother Jim recalled about him.

“We are a very close family, which is a blessing but also makes this even more difficult,” Jim Zelsnack said. “Steve was the backbone that kept us strong through all of our challenges in life. His positive outlook on life and his contagious smile is what lead us through many difficulties over the years.”

The brothers bought in September the 228-acre farm their father had owned since 1969. Farming had been Stephen Zelsnack’s other passion. The farm has 40 sheep, 13 pigs and more than 100 beef cows.

When Cortland and Marathon firefighters heard what happened to Zelsnack, they began taking over the farm duties, going before and after shifts to help out.
Cortland Firefighter Derek Reynolds said that effort will keep going as the family continues to grieve.

“We’ll be by their side until everything is set,” Reynolds said.

Jim Zelsnack said his family is doing the best it can to keep pushing forward.

“I’ve never had to experience life without Steve,” he said. “I had him watching over me since the day I was born. We worked the farm together, we were on shift together at the fire department and we rode to work together. He was my true best friend. I miss him.”

Zelsnack said he is very thankful to the community.

“A lot of people have supported us over the last couple months, some were right by our sides and others were behind the scenes. I can’t name everyone because so much has happened that I don’t even know about. Things just got done.”

But for the firefighters and the community members, no thank you was needed.

“That’s what the brotherhood does,” Syracuse firefighter Alan VanDonsel said.