Firefighters feel loss of firehouse families as four stations close Memories of shared dangers, diversions tinge farewell

December 15, 1991|By Jonathan Bor

It happened too early for a rain-swept city to notice. But yesterday, as parents slept and children tuned in their cartoons, firefighters were saying their last farewells to four stations and a fireboat that fell victim to Baltimore's deepening budget woes.

"There she goes," a firefighter said at 7:40 a.m., as Engine Company No. 7's pumper truck made its last exit from the wedge-shaped station on North Eutaw Street south of Maryland General Hospital.

"See ya," said another, turning his head from the departing engine. "That's the end."

Although the occasion was tinged with sadness, most of the firefighters said they had already resigned themselves to the closing of the 132-year-old station, which sports a shiny brass pole, spiral staircase, pressed-tin ceiling and a hayloft for horses that once pulled a steam-powered pumper.

Until yesterday, the station was Baltimore's oldest active firehouse.

Looking a bit dazed, firefighters said they were witnessing the breakup of a family that had battled blazes and shared stew pots for years. But there was nothing they could do but clean out their lockers, share a few doughnuts and move on to the scattered firehouses to which they were reassigned.

"It's just like someone came to your house and said they were going to close your house and send your family to all different places," said Capt. Lee Hillary, who served 38 years with the department before retiring last Monday.

Although the fire stations were closed, an agreement last month between the firefighters union and the city averted 252 threatened layoffs. In that pact, the union gave up a 6 percent pay increase while the city consented to spare the jobs at least through the remainder of the fiscal year, which ends June 30.

Fire trucks pulled out of three other stations for the last time yesterday: Engine Co. 17 on Fort Avenue in Locust Point, Engine Co. 18 on West 21st Street off Maryland Avenue and Engine Co. 34 on South Caroline St. in East Baltimore. Those stations were 96, 98 and 81 years old, respectively.

There's talk of old No. 7 becoming a homeless shelter and No. 18 being sold to interests wanting to clear land for a shopping center, said Deputy Fire Chief Robert A. Belluomo.

On Eutaw Street, fond memories pierced through the sadness.

"This has been a lucky house," said Captain Hillary, clutching a coffee cup while wedging an empty doughnut box under his arm. "I've been lucky as far as the personnel I had. Everyone's been so close. It's been a close family."

Luck may have also played a role in several disasters that could have happened but somehow didn't.

There was the 12-alarm fire at the abandoned Bay College building across the street in 1980. The flames "caught a backdraft and blew the helmets off my men," Captain Hillary said. But no one was seriously injured. That fire destroyed the fourth, fifth and sixth floors and burned the roof off the building.

Three years later, firefighters tried to drag a hose to the top floor of the flaming Hochschild-Kohn department store but retreated when they found the hose was too short. Minutes later, an explosion tore apart the highest floor, hurting no one.

"If they had had enough hose, they wouldn't be here now," he said.

Lt. Ernst Banse may have summed up the sentiments of the scattering company when he said, "We're all depressed. It's like breaking a family up." Bitter? "Not really. What has to be has to be."

In the down times between fires and training sessions, an easygoing atmosphere of television, cards and conversation made the station's 19 firefighters feel at home, Lieutenant Banse said. "But when we were on a job, it's 100 percent business."

Moments after the pumper departed, ex-fireman Tom Brennan walked to the truck's vacant space and showed a visitor groupings of Belgian block that were smoother than the rest. "That's where the horses used to stand," said Mr. Brennan, who became a software engineer after leaving the force in 1982.

Miles away, firefighter Tom Tyzack of Engine Co. 17 sat inside the Fort Avenue station in Locust Point, his feet propped up on a bridge table. Asked what he was thinking, Mr. Tyzack said, "Nothing really. There's nothing to say."

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