Firefighters forced to sit after N.Y. trip

5 from Balto. County deal with suspension

September 30, 2001|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

Each time the siren wails at Wise Avenue Volunteer Fire Company in Dundalk, Mike Kratochvil Jr. rises from his couch across the street and looks out his door.

Two weeks ago, the 29-year-old lieutenant with the company would likely be on one of the emergency runs. But Kratochvil and four other volunteer firefighters at Station 27 have been suspended by company commanders for traveling to New York to help with the World Trade Center cleanup.

Company leaders said the firefighters were guilty of insubordination when they violated a direct order from Baltimore County fire officials - who have jurisdiction over the volunteers - barring firefighters from going to New York without receiving an official request from the Fire Department of New York.

The suspended firefighters see it differently. They say they traveled to New York on their own time with their own gear to help out fellow firefighters.

"We were following our hearts," said Judi Ulsch, 38, another suspended firefighter, who has two years of service with the unit. "This was a ... disaster. I want to help my community, and I feel that you can go anywhere and help."

Acting Fire Chief David Martini said he suspended the five because they were warned not to take the trip when they expressed their desire to go.

Martini said he told them that if they went, they would have to go as observers and could not take county gear or wear clothing identifying themselves as county firefighters.

"They were instructed not to go," Martini said. "It's very important to follow orders."

Baltimore County did send 10 firefighters to New York as part of an official Federal Emergency Management Agency search-and-rescue unit. And many of the hundreds of county firefighters would have loved to dash off to help, Martini said.

"I have 90 people, all of whom would go to New York," said Martini. "They all felt the pain of New York and the country."

The firehouse friction began Sept. 11, the day of the attacks on the World Trade Center. As soon as they saw the devastation on television, Kratochvil and several other members began planning their trip.

Besides Kratochvil and Ulsch, the crew included volunteer firefighters Will Willinger, 20; Chuck Bruzdzinski and his sister, Kim.

On the day of the attack, a Baltimore County fire captain issued a memo to all paid and volunteer services in the county that members were "encouraged" not to go to New York without being officially summoned.

Kratochvil said he didn't consider the memo an order.

"I said, `Whatever, I'm still going,'" Kratochvil said.

He said he called the New York operations center for directions. The operator told Kratochvil that they had enough help, but then gave him directions to two command posts.

The five went to New York City, arriving at 1:30 a.m. Sept. 13. They woke later that morning and signed in to help at the Staten Island center, where they were asked their name, their county and their state.

On that Thursday, two days after the attack, the five worked on a bucket brigade, hauling debris from the pile at the World Trade Center. They were wearing their Wise Avenue Station 27 shirts.

"If I was going up there to just pass out water to the guys, that's what I would have done," Kratochvil said.

The crew spent one day at the site. Ulsch acknowledged that the devastation was too much for her.

"Just for a day, I'll have some memories I'll never forget," said Ulsch, a single mother of three. "The memories are engraved on my mind."

When Ulsch asked to leave, the others agreed.

"We decided that whatever we do, we would do as a group," Kratochvil said. "And we're going to take our punishment as a group."

The trouble started when the firefighters submitted a photograph from their trip to a community newspaper. The picture and the names in the paper gave the company commanders the evidence they needed to accuse the five of insubordination.

As part of their suspensions - 30 days for the firefighters and 45 days for Kratochvil as an officer - they were stripped of their gear and banned from the firehouse at 214 Wise Ave.

"It was all ridiculous," said Willinger, who has been with the company two years. "We go up there to help out, and they criticize us and try to punish us here."

Kratochvil, an 11-year veteran of the company who started as an 18-year-old, asked that he be allowed to bear the brunt of punishment.

"I don't think it looks good for the community firehouse to be fighting when we've got bigger tragedies going on in this world," Kratochvil said.

The suspended members will be welcomed back after serving their suspensions, which end Oct. 22 and Nov. 1, Martini said. The firefighters, however, worry that they could be ostracized by some of their fellow firefighters.

As Kratochvil is parked on his couch, an ambulance screams by his house and he glances out the window.

"It's very tough," Kratochvil said. "I still jump up and go to the door to see what crew is going out. I just want to make sure the guys are safe."

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