Embers of Heroism

As his new book details, it was bravery, a thick skin and a sense of duty that took retired Chief Herman Williams Jr. to the top of the ladder. And the flame still burns.

March 05, 2002|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

Herman Williams Jr. watched the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center with a special, personal, horror.

"I knew right away there were going to be firemen involved," he says. "Because that's our job."

Williams fought hundreds of fires during his 35 years with the Baltimore City Fire Department, nine of them as chief.

"They had to go in to rescue people. There was nothing else they could have done," he says. "I thought right away, if that building comes down, there's a lot of firemen in there."

The buildings, of course, did come down, and 343 firefighters died.

"The death of a fireman [is] like a stab in the heart," Williams says, repeating a passage from his newly published autobiography Firefighter (Mountain Movers Press, $23.95). His book is about his years as Baltimore fire chief, the first African American to lead a fire department in a major U.S. city, and the life that brought him there.

His firefighters had fought their own fire in a downtown high-rise building while he was chief, the Charles Tower fire in February 1999.

"I responded from here," he says. He lives in a handsome, comfortable apartment at Park Heights Avenue and Clarks Lane. "I was driving down the Jones Falls Expressway, and when I got down to Maryland Avenue I could see it: Oh, my God."

Smoke and flames billowed from the 15th floor of the 30-story apartment building.

"A lot of the tenants had rushed to the roof." Williams says. "Then there was a fear people might want to start jumping. So we called in the [State Police] helicopters and lowered some men down to make sure everybody was OK and get them down.

"What really made me feel so good was that my men, and I called them my men, those guys went into the building and walked, carrying 75 pounds, or more, of equipment, on their shoulders, on their backs, and walked up 15 flights of stairs to put that fire out.

"And not a one of them, not one man, went by the wayside, or said I can't make it. Nobody fell out. Nobody wanted to quit. It was a textbook operation."

For Herman Williams Jr., it was one of the good memories to be recorded in his book.

"I think it takes a special person to be a firefighter, or a policeman," he says. "You never thought about the danger."

When Williams was assigned to Engine 57 in Curtis Bay in 1958, a crane went off a bridge into Cabin Branch Creek. The driver was trapped and the tide was rising.

Williams and another firefighter named Andy Kovoski dove into the murky, polluted waters. Kovoski held the guy's head up. Williams dove under.

"I found his foot," he writes in the book, "but his ankle was twisted, wedged beneath the steering column. Every time I touched his leg he'd holler and scream. ...

"I came up and said to Andy: `I'm going to get his leg out one way or another. Get ready.' I said to the driver: `I'm going to yank your foot out, or I'll have to cut it out.'

"I went under again. This time I felt some space behind the column. I twisted his ankle hard. I was underwater but I could hear him scream. His foot came free.

"I shot up and spit out a mouthful of foul water ... I suddenly realized something. "Andy, how the hell did I get out here? I can't swim."

A segregated world

There were plenty of bad times as well. Baltimore was a segregated city when Williams became a firefighter in 1954, and the Fire Department mirrored the city. The firehouse where he expected camaraderie and friendship could be a place of discrimination, insult and racism.

His retirement last year gave him time to reflect on nearly 50 years in public service. Along with his years in the Fire Department, he had spent eight years as an executive in the Department of Public Works and four as commissioner of transportation.

"I just stopped to think," he says. "Then my memory just went on and kept going back and back and back, back into the years. I wonder how I really survived all that."

So he was inspired to do the book. Plus, he had two sons and two daughters urging him to do it, and then the help of writer James Hall.

He recalls that in 1953 the Urban League, which had long been fighting discrimination in employment, asked "a bunch of guys" to take the exam for the Fire Department. Williams was a member of the Urban League and he responded.

"We all failed, 30, 35 guys," he says. "And I'm telling you what was so idiotic about this was that it was a simple little IQ test: "How much is one and one? Where is City Hospital? That kind of stuff."

"The story made the newspapers," he writes in the book, "and the reports hinted something fishy was going on. As a result, we were all called back to take the test again. This time, we all passed."

"I don't know who behind the scenes got on that," Williams says.

But he thinks help came from Mayor Thomas A. D'Alessandro Jr., who had courted the African-American vote with support for civil rights when he was re-elected in 1951.

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