Arundel firefighter reveals stories of fallen comrades

Compilation focuses on 18 killed in the line of duty

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

The Anne Arundel County firefighters who died in the line 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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