Detroit firefighter who died while saving 3 girls remembered as family man, master storyteller

Posted at 6:50 PM, Aug 24, 2020
and last updated 2020-08-24 23:00:35-04

DETROIT (WXYZ) — Family and friends are mourning the loss of a hero, a father, a brother, a son, a friend, a firefighter, and a motivational speaker.

Sgt. Sivad Johnson was pronounced dead Saturday morning after diving into the Detroit River to save three girls from drowning Friday night.

He was off duty at the time, hanging out on Belle Isle with his 10-year-old daughter when he heard cries for help. The 26-year Detroit Fire Department Veteran dove in to rescue them.

With the help of a boater, the girls returned to shore safely, Sgt. Johnson did not.

His courage and desire to impact lives extended beyond the fire department to the stage.

Sgt Sivad Johnson was a regular at NPR’s "The Moth" StorySlams in Michigan.

Producer Patricia Wheeler met him at his first big event 2 years ago.

"All of us were completely in love with him from the first time we met him," says Patricia Wheeler, the Michigan Event Producer for NPR’s Moth StorySlam events.

"He would get up and blow us all away with his charm and his wit and his incredible selflessness. Every month, month after month," says Wheeler.

Sgt Sivad Johnson was a father of two girls, the son and brother of firefighters, and a 26 year veteran of the Detroit Fire Department himself.

"Even though he was an actual hero he was never the hero of his story, he always focused his stories on what we can do to be better people, which was truly inspiring," says Wheeler.

He inspired his co-workers to dive into challenges like the Tough Mudder, he was an award-winning chef, an artist, a father of two girls, and by all accounts an amazing friend.

He was awarded the medal of valor for saving a life while risking his own safety back in 2017. On Friday night, he gave his life, saving 3 young girls struggling in the Detroit River.

"It’s the story of his life, going to rescue strangers," says Detroit Fire Commissioner Eric Jones.

Storytelling was another way Sgt Johnson hoped he could offer a lifeline. He had a passion for speaking with Detroit Youth.

"He also wanted to be able to talk to adults who maybe felt like they were stuck in their lives or wanted to change the path that they were on," says Wheeler.

His family attended some of his most prominent Moth StorySlam events.

"Seeing how he interacted with his daughters and with his father and his brother really touched me," says Wheeler.

The power of storytelling, says Wheeler, is the power to unify, to help us see we are more alike than we are different.

"I am 5’8”, Sivad was very tall and very handsome and very well-spoken. And when he would get on the stage to tell his stories about being a firefighter or about being a dad, none of those things that I am, I felt connected to what he said and I felt inspired by his story. And that is what storytelling is about. And he was a master at it," says Wheeler.

"He was always happy, just full of life and excited to be a part of whatever it was he was a part of and that is truly a gift. I’m so glad I got to have him in my life these last 2 years," says Wheeler.

During the pandemic, StorySlam events were canceled. Sgt Johnson published motivational YouTube videos.

While Sgt Johnson will no longer be taking the stage, Moth Producer Patricia Wheeler wants his family to know, "That that their dad was loved. That Sivad was loved so much by everyone, everyone that he touched. And he will be so dearly missed."

And that his legacy and his stories will live on.