Fire chief becomes city's face

Harbor Tragedy

March 11, 2004|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

Saturday afternoon started out quietly at home for Baltimore Fire Chief William J. Goodwin Jr., who was shaving and getting ready for a family birthday party. Then, he turned on his fire radio just to "see how the guys were doing."

What he heard were desperate voices describing a tragedy on the waterfront. Moments later, he dashed out of his Canton house to Fort McHenry, where the city's first fatal water taxi incident was unfolding.

There was no time to change out of casual clothes into his fire chief's uniform. So he arrived at the water's edge in his jeans, sweater and tennis shoes, ready to do whatever was needed.

By nightfall, he became the city's voice and public face of the tragedy.

Plain speaking is his way. "You did outstanding," he told a group of Navy reservists who rushed to help rescue 21 of the 25 passengers. At a news conference, he characterized the chances of the missing passengers' survival in the frigid water as "slim to none."

In private, Goodwin acted as an ambassador of sorts to families from other cities. Many passengers were visiting tourists.

Goodwin, 48, is a third-generation city firefighter who brings a confident bearing into the rickety fireboat station on Fort McHenry. That 1937 building is the command post where he is orchestrating the effort to recover the three people missing and presumed dead.

With understated intensity, he says Fire Department divers are doing everything that can be done to scour the dark 50-foot floor of the shipping channel leading out to the Key Bridge.

"Our business is tragedy," Goodwin said yesterday. "For it to happen right in front of the fireboat station and now we still can't find [the bodies], that doesn't sit very well with our men and women."

During his 28-year career in the city Fire Department, Goodwin served as a diver, at one time fishing through Inner Harbor waters for a man who had committed suicide.

He still remembers the man's mother approaching him after he brought the body to the surface. "She said, `I couldn't have slept knowing my baby was under water,'" Goodwin recalled. "I never forgot that."

He went on to command the diving team. And now he says he wishes he could dive in to help bring some comfort to the grieving families he has come to know in Saturday's capsizing.

"Completing the mission" is something Goodwin says is the reason for the past few days of painful searching, so far without finding the three missing people. Recovering them and knowing their fate will help the families, he said. But it is also clearly a point of Baltimore Fire Department pride.

As Goodwin put it, "In my 28 years, we've never left anybody behind. We've never had an unsuccessful mission. Protracted incidents are not our style. We're known as an aggressive department."

The father of two grown daughters attended Archbishop Curley High School and grew up on the waterfront. "I grew up in Canton before Canton was cool," he said. "You tried to live two or three blocks from Mom and Dad. That's how the neighborhood was kept up."

Rick Schluderberg, president of the Baltimore firefighters union, said that despite contract disputes in the nearly 1,700-member department, he considers Goodwin an articulate commander who has earned respect: "He wouldn't ask you to do anything he wouldn't do. With his valor and courage, he's one you look up to in leadership."

Goodwin is known for keeping his cool under fire - literally - as when he led a crew of firefighters into a raging Howard Street tunnel train fire in July 2001. That was when Goodwin, tactical commander overseeing the incident of a 60-car chemical-bearing train, caught Mayor Martin O'Malley's eye.

The mayor, who was then conducting a nationwide search for a fire chief, chose Goodwin two years ago over several competitive city and outside candidates. At the fireboat station yesterday, O'Malley praised the fire chief's demeanor in his most visible role yet.

"He's very focused and on top of this," the mayor said. "He's a no-nonsense commander and, during this crisis, I saw the calm, the resolve and the care for his own troops."

"I know he's heartbroken that this hasn't been brought to closure yet," O'Malley said. "And he has become the face of the city during this incident."

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