JERSEY CITY - When firefighter Darren Rivers' first call came at 2 a.m. on Central Avenue in 1982, he wanted to prove to his crew he was ready for the job.
He recalled being a "bumbling idiot" who dropped his gloves climbing up a ladder to saw open a tin roof. Instead of going back for his work gloves, he ripped open his knuckles and left his first assignment with bleeding hands.
But 35 years later, the city's first African-American fire chief is retiring from service.
An emotional Rivers was greeted outside fire headquarters Tuesday morning with a final salute from dozens of fire firefighters on his final day of work.
"This is a wonderful tribute, wonderful send off," Rivers said to the crowd gathered on Marin Boulevard. "And I love everybody."
As members of the fire department's pipes and drums played, Rivers made his wayJersey City Fire Chief Darren River retires
through the crowd, shaking hands and hugging every person gathered to honor him.
Rivers was first promoted to captain in 1989, and then battalion chief in 2001. He became the city's first African-American deputy chief in 2007 before being sworn in as the leader of the department in 2010.
"I was a kid when I first got here," Rivers told The Jersey Journal. "I met so many wonderful people who actually helped me to grow up, taught me the job."
As a firefighter in the city he was born and raised in, Rivers learned valuable life lessons from the "good men" working alongside him. He took pride in guiding rookie firefighters through the job, similar to the mentoring he had.
"They taught me how to treat people with respect, how to mentor people with love, and how to support everyone regardless of who they are, where they come from, the color of their skin, or whatever they believe in," he said.
There were struggles, some personal, throughout his career.
Rivers said his grandfather died three days before he took his psychological exam to join the department. In 2015, his son Darcel Rivers was fatally shot in an apparent botched robbery on Fulton Avenue. The now retired chief said his son's memory is always with him, but that his service hasn't been dedicated just to his family, but to the community at large.
"There's ups and downs, there's tragedy, but what you need to do is ... when everything is ascending, everything is good, you're happy," Rivers said. "But when you're descending, when you have those twists and turns, you just have to hold on tight, grip, bare it and know it's not always going to be that way."
Mayor Steve Fulop called Rivers a "tremendous leader in the fire department and someone who rose through the ranks and made history in this city.
"Not only do we thank him for his 35 years of service, but also for his guidance and dedication to the younger members of the department," he said.
City spokeswoman Jennifer Morrill said a new chief is expected to be appointed next week.
Rivers said he's looking forward to relaxing during his retirement, but will continue to mentor members of the department and help other people in community. He is building a home in North Carolina and plans to move in the next year.
"It's a bitter sweet day, but I hope that I leave here, leave everyone with a state of mind knowing that I cared about them, and how much they meant to me."
Caitlin Mota may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @caitlin_mota. Find The Jersey Journal on Facebook.
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