Firefighters to be honored for rooftop rescue in 1999

March 24, 2000|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

City firefighter John Kirkner was working an early-morning shift at his second job as a paramedic when the call came in about a fire at the high-rise Charles Towers Apartments. Just before 2 a.m., Kirkner called his wife Sue to tell her he was headed to the scene to jump out of a helicopter.

"I think I told her I loved her, too," Kirkner said, recalling his dash to the Feb. 5, 1999, blaze at the downtown Baltimore building. "I don't know."

Kirkner, 34, was one of eight firefighters lowered by cables from state police helicopters to help battle the fire and to rescue tenants trapped on upper floors and huddled on the roof.

On Sunday, the eight men will be recognized for their rescue effort with the Baltimore Fire Department's highest honor.

Each of the men will receive the department's Heroic Service Award. The honor is rare: Only 32 such medals have been awarded in the department's 130-year history, said Battalion Chief Hector L. Torres.

Forty other firefighters will be recognized for their efforts at the eight-alarm fire with the department's Meritorious Conduct Award, Torres said. Five fire officials and more than a dozen units will receive the Distinguished Service Award during Medals Day, the department's annual awards presentation.

The number of awards given for a single fire is unusual, Torres said. But so was the fire.

It started just before 1: 30 a.m. on the 15th floor of the 30-floor building and presented city firefighters with a tactical nightmare. The fire trapped dozens of people in the upper floors and about 20 tenants fled to the building's roof to escape the smoke and flames.

To fight the blaze, some rescuers had to climb 15 flights of stairs, lugging their heavy gear. In all, 170 firefighters spent about two hours extinguishing the blaze.

From above, Kirkner and his colleagues on the department's Special Rescue Operations unit used high-wire rescue techniques that they had practiced dozens of times over grassy fields. This was the first time they had to use their training.

Kirkner and Lt. John Kisser, who were dropped in together that night and who serve together on the department's Rescue Unit 1, remember checking and double-checking their equipment before they were slowly lowered from the helicopter to the narrow patch of roof about 50 feet below.

"I looked at the roof and I thought, `How the hell are we going to hit that?' " said Kirkner, a 13-year veteran of the department. "How is he going to put us down there?"

Once they reached the roof, Kirkner, Kisser and the other special rescue unit members comforted the tenants huddled on the roof, then started working their way down through the building, moving other tenants to safety.

Kirkner and Kisser said this week that the firefighters working below deserve more credit for saving the building and saving lives. Only one person died in the blaze, a 72-year-old woman who suffered a heart attack; nine others were injured.

But the two men said they are grateful for the recognition of the special rescue team's specialized training.

The other members of the rescue team who will be honored Sunday are Capt. Robert Scarpati, Lt. Dominic Fiaschetti and firefighters William Hartsock, Scott Merbach, Donald Bradley and Donald Coster.

The Medals Day ceremony is scheduled for 2 p.m. at the War Memorial Building. It is open to the public.

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