Iron man amid wooden ladders

Dan Rodricks

July 22, 1992|By Dan Rodricks

It might have been "no big deal," as Pete O'Connor himself said. It might have been a common practice in big-city fire departments, and something every firefighter in Baltimore knew and even took for granted.

But it's something the public probably did not know -- I certainly never did -- and it just slipped out yesterday while O'Connor talked about his 38 years of service in the city Fire Department.

When that big fire erupted at Henderson's Wharf in Fells Point a few years ago, O'Connor went inside the burning warehouse. As the fire raged around him, the chief walked across the first floor to test its stability. And he fell through the rotten wood. Landed in water up to his knees. Hurt his back. Earned his pay.

"It scared me more than anything else," O'Connor recalled. "I wanted to go in there and see what the conditions were before sending the men in. Usually, in old buildings like that, the men can work along the walls and the floor will hold. But in that place, the floors were rotten all through."

I'm told that O'Connor was not the first fire officer to personally test conditions in or near a burning building before committing the troops. And he himself did it many times as a captain, battalion chief and even as deputy chief.

But once he became big chief in 1980, O'Connor could have leaned back on his seniority and his stature. He could have struck a pose in a command post outside a burning building. He could have contented himself with reports from deputies. Certainly the chief of the Fire Department didn't have to get his hands dirty. Did Schwarzkopf get sand in his boots?

"Iron men and wooden ladders," said a firefighter who served under O'Connor.

Whenever the young men talk about the old-school firefighters, the rugged, smoke-eating tough guys, they use that phrase: "Iron men and wooden ladders." If you want a picture of a guy from that school, it's Pete O'Connor.

His hands-on, face-in-the-fire habits used to drive then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer crazy. Shortly after O'Connor became chief, a huge blaze roared through old Bay College on North Howard Street. When Schaefer arrived at the scene and asked to consult with his chief, he was told that O'Connor was not on the fire ground. He was inside it.

"He went inside to see the fire for himself," a colleague remembered. "He was one of the chiefs who wanted to get in there, instead of relying on reports from his men. Not all chiefs do this. By the book, they don't have to."

What is immeasurable is the degree to which such a practice instilled faith and loyalty in his men during the 12 years Pete O'Connor served as chief, though it's a good bet he didn't need to prove himself.

When he was promoted to chief in 1980, O'Connor had been a firefighter 26 years and he had served nearly 10 of them as president of Fire Officers Local 964. In that role, he had had a sometimes acrimonious relationship with Schaefer. This did nothing but earn him the respect of the men with whom he served. His predecessor as chief dubbed him the "firefighter's firefighter."

Dozens of old pals will turn out tonight at Martin's Eastwind for a testimonial. O'Connor's retirement as chief was official the end of last month. His last day of work was in March.

His first day was June 9, 1954. He was 22 years old and had given up a machinist apprenticeship at Bethlehem Steel to join the Fire Department. He made $3,600 in his first year.

"I had a bunch of little injuries," he said. "Hurt my back a few times. I fell through floors. Got overcome with smoke in an ice cream factory once. . . . One time, when I was with 5 Engine -- I was a captain -- we had a fire on Chase Street. Fire was inside this summer kitchen in the rear of a rowhouse. We were climbing up to the second floor rear, and somebody had put a sheet of tin over a hole in the roof of this summer kitchen, and I stepped on it. Fell straight through into the fire. I didn't get burned, though."

He worked hard for promotions, moving up from lieutenant to captain to battalion chief in the 10 years between 1960 and 1970. He doesn't have a single regret about the choice of careers, either.

"I'd say 98 percent of the guys in the Fire Department are glad they made the choice," O'Connor said. "I worked with a lot of great guys who joined because they wanted to fight fires and save lives. You feel good when you save someone, bad when you don't. It's the greatest feeling when you know you've removed someone from danger. It doesn't always work out, though. Ultimately, if you can't deal with that, you know you're in the wrong line of work. I only knew one firefighter who quit because of that. He saw his captain get killed. He thought it best to leave after that. . . .

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