RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — A Richmond grandmother wasn’t expecting any visitors the night before her 93rd birthday. Little did she know, members of the Richmond Fire Department, Engine 14, had been planning a surprise visit to her home on her special day.

“I went to the door and there were five firemen with this great big cake,” Ernestine R. Cotton said. “I didn’t know what to do, I had my mouth open and couldn’t shut it.”

Ernestine R. Cotton with Richmond Firefighters. Photo courtesy of Richmond Fire Department

Cotton questioned how the men knew it was her birthday.

Lt. Trae Kenney recalled their first encounter with Cotton one year ago, remembering the stories and conversations they shared together. Kenney said after leaving Cotton’s home for the first time, the men made a mental note to surprise her for her 93rd birthday.

When people think about local fire departments, images of rescue missions, extinguishing fires and saving lives often come to mind, but Kenney believes the work that they do has another side.

“You get to know people on a different level without anything being wrong,” Kenney said. “We get to be neighbors, spend a little time with people.”

Cotton has resided in her home since 1966. While she has spent many birthdays there, she said this one “takes the cake.”

“I feel so happy I don’t feel 93 years old, I really don’t,” she said.

According to those involved in the festivity, the surprise fostered a growing sense of community and camaraderie, and highlighted the way neighbors, friends and strangers look out for one another, putting a smile on each other’s faces.

“I can’t tell the firefighters how much I love them,” Cotton said.