Oakland firefighter hailed as ‘unstoppable’ force laid to rest

Oakland firefighters mourned the death of Caeden Laffan Thursday after the 25-year-old drowned in San Diego.

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

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

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

That so many people had to gather again so soon was almost unbearable for those who left mourning Wednesday inside the crowded warship.

“Today we remember and honor Caeden,” Fire Chaplain Jayson Landeza said, adding that he would “pray for him to be reunited with his beloved father Sean in eternal life.”

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

Laffan and his brothers spent their childhoods running around fire stations during visits with 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 Laffen, also work as firefighters in Oakland. The former began working there in 2019, while the latter is currently in the Oakland Fire Department’s training academy.

Caeden Laffen himself began his career with the Stockton Fire Department in December 2018, where he made a name for himself as a “super sharp kid” for whom “everything was a competition to be the best,” said Stockton Fire Captain Justin Wilson, one of the men who was tasked with overseeing Caeden Laffan’s academy.

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

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

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

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

Scores of firefighters from across the state came to pay their respects, including from the cities of 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 show of support was “unbelievable,” said Justin Sylvia, a Sacramento fire captain who knew Caeden’s father since 2008 and whose stepson played baseball with the Laffan boys. Another of Caeden’s brothers also got his start in firefighting, working for the Sacramento Fire Department.

“It really shows you that the emergency services, no matter what patch you wear, we all stand for the same thing,” Sylvia said.

Caeden’s last weeks alive offered a window into his unbridled energy.

He played pickleball for hours one day, then a gauntlet of Australian rules football, flag football and basketball the next. Then he played soccer with some other firefighters and baseball with his brothers the next day.

“The guy was unstoppable, and he didn’t lack confidence,” Cooper Laffan said.

Then he traveled to Japan for two weeks “bouncing all over the place” and later to Hawaii for deep-sea fishing, skydiving, cliff jumping and a dive with sharks four miles off the coast. Just days after he returned, he drove to San Diego for the California Firefighter Summer Games for pickleball, basketball, beer pong and softball, Cooper Laffan said.

“When I talked to him that week, it was obvious he loved being here, being surrounded by so many people he loved,” Cooper Laffan said.

That was the last time they spoke. Weeks later, standing in front of hundreds of other firefighters, Cooper looked down at his brother’s flag-draped casket and hugged his brother Connor.

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

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