FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) – It was a single sign of honor that touched the hearts of thousands. A picture of a young man standing alone with his hand over his heart for the miles-long funeral procession for Capt. Eric Balliet last week practically went viral on Facebook. A viewer sent the grainy image to NewsChannel 15, but didn’t know the boy’s name. After posting it on social media, it didn’t take long for someone to recognize him as 12-year-old Ethan Higi.
The young boy never expected the attention he’s getting now. He said he was simply doing what he thought was right. What his grandpa taught him.
“Always respect my elders and respect people and they will respect you and help you,” Ethan said. “I know that everybody respected [Capt. Balliet] and I wanted to give him and his family more respect because he put his life on the line every day.”
Ethan also understood their loss. His grandpa who taught him so much, died last year.
“I’m going through my grandpa’s loss too and I wanted to give hope to other people and Eric’s family,” Ethan told firefighters and Eric’s family while sitting around the dinner table at fire Station 1.
“I wanted to thank the parent or guardian with the child. He didn’t even ask his grandma if he could get out. He just knew what do to,” Brian Laursen, a close friend of Eric’s and fellow paramedic at TRAA, said.
Tony Stimpson, now a flight paramedic for Lutheran Air and long-time friend of Eric’s, also saw Ethan when he was in the procession.
“I said, ‘Look, look, look, look! Look at this kid. Look at what he’s doing,” Stimpson said. “Eric would have loved this guy. He’s a good kid. He’s impacted a lot of people in the right way for what he did.”
Ethan’s grandma pulled over for the procession and before she knew it, he had jumped out of the car.
“He put his hand over his heart and just cried because of the loss of the kids and the family. We’ve had our own loss and he knows how hard it is. He’s always respected firefighters, but when he did this, it was like wow,” Debi Higi, Ethan’s grandma, who also adopted him, said.
She said Ethan’s always wanted to be a firefighter too, and this week, he got a little taste of life in the engine house. Ethan had a tour and dinner at Station 15, Eric’s station. He got to try on the gear and take a short ride down the driveway in the captain’s seat on the engine truck.
“It was cool. I got to sit where Eric sat at dinner and I got badges and a new nickname. Captain Balliet was Shmoo, so they called me Mini Shmoo. It’s cool because they said I have a lot of things in common with Captain Balliet. He cared about his family and cared about other people. It could be a stranger walking around and he would care about them,” Ethan said.
Shaking hands and sharing hugs with firefighters and Eric’s family, Ethan gained a news family too.
“These guys really made his day and really boosted his self esteem,” Debi said. “His grandpa would be over the moon right now. He was so proud of Ethan anyway. He always said to Ethan that you have good things in you, you just have to let them come out.”
Ethan, whose hobbies include crafts, working out, making wallets and helping people feel good, is feeling the love given back to him.
“They all respect me too and they give me self esteem shoots through and it makes me feel like I have a lot of people who care about me,” he said.
Capt. Bob Amber told Ethan he has what it takes to do whatever he wants in life, especially if that’s becoming a firefighter.
“That kid’s got a compassionate heart. He gets it. I hope he felt a little of Eric’s presence because between the two of them, they made two great individuals,” Amber said.