Revealing the stories of 18 fallen comrades

Book: Firefighter compiles stories about those killed on the job.

April 18, 2002|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

The Anne Arundel County firefighters who died in the line of duty were listed on a plaque the size of a cereal box, hanging on a concrete block wall at county fire headquarters.

A bowling trophy seemed detailed and elaborate in comparison.

"Just a name and a date, and that was all the documentation we had," said Tim Runkles, a nine-year firefighter assigned to the county fire marshal's office. His curiosity about the fallen firefighters inspired him to launch a three-year research project that led him from graveyards to widows' hospital beds for more information.

Now that his work is complete and his findings are compiled in a book, the department has biographies of each of the 18 county firefighters who died in service -- including details about the last calls they answered and where they are buried.

Runkles, who is commander of the department's color guard, which marches at the funerals of all county firefighters, said: "I figured if anyone should know who these firefighters were, it should be me."

But by Runkles' description, he was an unlikely candidate to chronicle the department's past.

"I was never a history buff," he said, adding that he doesn't collect wartime memorabilia and didn't ace history exams in school in Hanover.

Runkles, 34, said he always wanted to be a firefighter. He was a volunteer in South Carolina before becoming a professional here.

"I'm a fire department guy," he said, explaining how important the project became to him. "It's preserving our history."

Runkles started with the unofficial keepers of department history -- the veterans who remember the legendary fires and the legendary characters.

"I started talking to retired firefighters, asking, `What about so and so?'" he said. He carefully noted the names and details they recalled.

Spending summers in the state archives and local libraries searching through burial records and newspaper clippings, Runkles found the burial sites of each of the firefighters and, in most cases, the fires to which they were responding.

But it was a test of Runkles' tenacity from the beginning. While trying to find the grave of William Brown, the first firefighter killed in the line of duty in 1910, Runkles was told that the burial records had been destroyed in a fire in 1948. Runkles had to search hundreds of graves.

"I spent hours looking," Runkles said. "It was starting to get dark, and then it started raining. It was coming down so hard, there wasn't even any point in running back to the parking lot. Then I dropped my papers.

"But when I stood up, I glanced at the tombstone. It was Brown's," he said. "I was standing right in front of it. I mean, what are the chances of that happening?

"That," he said, "was one of my inspiring moments."

Talking to relatives of the firefighters was most rewarding, Runkles said. He spent hours on back porches, looking through scrapbooks and family photo albums.

One widow gave him the only photo she had of her husband.

Time and again, relatives would hand Runkles every scrap of memorabilia they had. "It blew me away -- that they'd just give me their most cherished possession. They didn't even know me," he said.

With all the information in hand, Runkles began to assemble what he had collected. Delicate photographs were reproduced. He drew maps of cemeteries. His mother helped him type his findings.

Runkles' work became especially important in 2000 when Chief Roger C. Simonds Sr. commissioned a larger memorial to firefighters killed in the line of duty to replace the small plaque that had hung at the Millersville headquarters.

"He did all of this on his own time," said Division Chief John M. Scholz. "It's just incredible. If we don't have this, we can't learn from the past."

Even after the larger memorial was unveiled two years ago, Runkles continued his research. "I may never totally finish it because one of my goals is to have a photo of them all. I'm still missing a few," he said.

Last week, Runkles presented the book to Simonds, who plans to have the pages laminated and bound. In the next few weeks, fire officials expect to display the book next to the memorial.

Runkles is looking for his next research project on department history. He says he is concerned that valuable information is being lost with the dwindling number of volunteers and retired company men and women who remember the early days.

"Once they're gone, the future generations won't know who the firefighters were who served before them or what the history of this department is," Runkles said. "If these stories aren't passed on, they'll just be names on a wall."

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