D.C. Cooper is a rock star in Asia and Europe.
He has performed for thousands in sold-out venues in Germany, Holland, Spain and Japan — and he s on tour in Europe now. He has made or performed on 32 albums throughout his career.
But on Feb. 9, the Bellevue resident found himself in a situation in which few musicians have ever been.
As a member of the Bellevue Volunteer Fire Department, Cooper answered an alarm for a fire at a two-story home in Avalon. Once, twice, three times he climbed to a ladder s apex, trying to douse flames in sub-zero temperatures. At some point, Cooper strained his shoulder probably from trying to chop a hole in the roof with an ax but either the cold or adrenaline made him numb to the pain.
Then, something went wrong.
According to Bellevue VFD fire chief Jeff Mack, Cooper had been up on the ladder approximately 15 minutes and was suffering from the early stages of hypothermia. Three other firefighters also suffered hypothermia that night, Mack says.
He would have stayed up there longer if I hadn t called him down, Mack says. But he s hard-headed. All of my guys are hard-headed like that. They don t want to stop what they re doing.
Cooper descended the ladder, shaking and shivering. He eventually passed out. Later, he learned his body temperature had dropped seven degrees.
When he came to, he was in Mercy Hospital, where many of the nurses, attendants and doctors know him.
A few people said, D.C., what the hell are you doing here? Cooper says.
The staff at Mercy recognized him as D.C. Cooper, an EMT with the McKees Rocks-based Northwest E.M.S. Many times, they d witnessed Cooper transporting the sick, the injured and the dead.
No one at Mercy had any idea how quickly news of Cooper s hospitalization would spread via the Internet to Japan, Europe and across the United States. Fans flooded Cooper s e-mail and message boards with get well wishes.
While Cooper was heartened by the outpouring of support, in retrospect, he seems a bit embarrassed about the incident.
It took me a couple of days to get back to normal, Cooper says. I felt like a schmuck for getting injured, for letting my fellow (firefighters) down. I m not sure what happened that night.
Star, not celebrity
In late August. Cooper, fully recovered from his February mishap, prepared to embark on an overseas tour with the German-based Silent Force, a progressive-rock metal band that has large fan bases in Japan, Germany and other sections of Europe.
A few years ago, he would have keenly anticipated concert dates in Tokyo and Osaka, Japan, as well as Lagoa, Portugal. This year, he still looks forward to performing, but he has limited expectations.
I ve gotten past the point of being jealous and envious of not being on MTV, of not having a reality show, says Cooper, 42. I feel I m past that. Sure, there s still a bit of ego, wanting to be part of that. But I ve always been a mid-level success, and I m fine with that. In the music community, being respected by people from all over, by fans to me, that s the most important thing.
What he s most interested in is family. The father of two boys, Clayton, 5, and Carson, 2 1/2, Cooper s voice cracks when he talks about how he insisted on breaking the tour into segments so he wouldn t have to be away from his family for six consecutive weeks.
He s very sensitive, says Michelle Cooper, his wife of 10 years. Before, when we were doing our own thing, it was different. I can fend for myself, I d lived on my own. Now, it s a whole different time in our lives. You like to be around those two. They re funny, they re entertainment. It s hard for him to leave them, even for a week.
Clayton and Carson, it turns out, are the main reasons Cooper went back to being an EMT. Growing up in Bedford, he worked on ambulance crews, starting at the age of 14. But when his musical career took off in the early 1990s, first with Royal Hunt and then with Silent Force, that vocation was put aside.
The births of his sons prompted a shift in his priorities.
The big thing for me was I needed to get back to reality, he says. This is life and death. This is it. There s not too many other things that you can do that slap you in the face like this.
Cooper has witnessed some horrific scenes. He s watched helplessly as a crash victim burned in a car that had slid into a ravine. There have been heart attacks, burn victims, broken limbs. He once retrieved the severed leg of a motorcyclist, which successfully was re-attached.
That was a good day, he says.
A world apart
Through it all, he tries to keep his musical life apart from his EMT duties. Sometimes, subconsciously, the two intertwine. Every so often, Dan Gulasy, the assistant chief of Northwest EMS, will hear one of his employees singing softly or whistling. Invariably, it s Cooper.
He tries to keep them separate, says Gulasy of Cooper. But it s not hard for him to lead into a story and recount some sort of events in his life.
Cooper is never overbearing about his life outside of the ambulance service. Alex Capece, one of his regular partners, had to initially prod Cooper to tell stories about being a rocker.
He s very humble about it, Capece says. He doesn t act like he s better than anyone else, that he s a rock star and everyone should kiss his feet. There s no sense of that. He does it because he loves it.
Capece, 20, is less than half Cooper s age. As the paramedic on the ambulance, he has a broader knowledge base and can perform more procedure on calls.
But the partnership, Capece insists, is one of equals.
They can teach you all you want in school, but until you get out on the street, it s difficult to understand how things work, Capece says. He has the street knowledge of how the whole system works. He s helped with things like how to get somebody out of a house, or what s the quickest way to get from our station to a location. Just the fact that he s been around and knows the area was an amazing help to me when I started.
He s very outgoing guy, very interested in the community and public safety, he says of Cooper. He s always looking for an opportunity to get out in the neighborhoods and be involved. He s a very pleasant guy to be around. And, he s had a world of experiences most people couldn t even dream of.
Mack, the Bellevue fire chief, is impressed with Cooper as well.
I don t know how he does it, how he s found the time to take all the courses (for accreditation as a firefighter) and also found the time to be an EMT, Mack says. He leads a pretty active life.
But why become an EMT, or volunteer as a firefighter? Musicians often take jobs as waiters, or work in record stores, or do voiceover work. There would seem to be very little that linked saving a life to singing a song.
Cooper admits there s no comparison, but he has felt similar emotions taking a stage and traveling to an accident scene.
You get an adrenaline rush on stage and an adrenaline rush driving down the road with the lights and sirens on, he says. And I enjoy that rush. Maybe I m just trying to hang on to my youth.
Voice in the Light is an album by Amaran s Plight, a progressive-rock super-group of sorts that features Gary Wehrkamp of Shadow Gallery on keyboards and guitars, drummer Nick D Virgilio, who has performed with Sheryl Crow, Tears for Fears and Spock s Beard, bassist Kurt Barabas of Under the Sun, and Cooper.
Based on a novel by John Crawford — who served as the album s executive producer — Voice in the Light rose to the Top 5 on progressive rock charts earlier this year.
It s one of five album releases featuring Cooper s vocals this year, and Crawford says getting him to participate was crucial to the release s success.
D.C. has a tremendous reputation for being an amazing vocalist who sounds great in the studio and live, says Crawford, who lives near Lancaster. It s very difficult to pull off both.
Crawford cites occasional polls run by metal and prog rock magazines, and how Cooper always outpaces vocalists such as Ronnie James Dio, Geoff Tate, Bruce Dickinson and David Coverdale. His fan base, Crawford says, is fiercely devoted to any and all of his musical projects.
He s so good at creating great sounds with his voice, Crawford says. His ability to create a vocal melody for a song, to make it truly melodic, is remarkable. I was absolutely blown away by his work and efforts on his project.
Cooper would like to see the Amaran s Plight project succeed. He speaks of the possibilities of a live performance, perhaps a DVD. Anything that would help him gain a larger presence in the U.S.
But no longer is he agonizing over the possibilities. Whatever happens with his musical ventures , he s happy and content in his little corner of Bellevue.
Cooper manages to adjust his work schedule for his music travels.
In late September, he returned from shows in Japan. Two days later, he was back working a 24-hour shift with Northwest EMS. On Wednesday, it was back to Europe for Silent Force gigs in Germany and the Netherlands. He is expected home again today, then back to another 24-hour Monday shift at Northwest.
From the adoration of thousands of fans to saving lives is a quantum leap in terms of exposure. But the core of what Cooper does remains the same.I want to be known as a good father and a good husband, he says. I want to be remembered as a good friend. And I also want them to say, that (guy) could sing.