Tough fireman had softer side

Firefighters remember one of their own killed en route to hurricane relief efforts


A true blue-collar tough guy, Wilson "Skip" Strong Jr. was never much for computers, or showing his feelings for that matter. But recently, he surprised a friend on his birthday by sending an e-mail from work.

"You know, it's funny how life can change in just a year," he wrote. "I never thought I would be a father or a crew leader. Sometimes, we don't take the time to sit back and look at how good life really is."

Less than two weeks later, Strong, 38, was killed in an accident on a Louisiana interstate. He was on his way to Texas to assist with Hurricane Rita repairs, when the vehicle he was riding in swerved off the road and tumbled down an embankment.

He was scheduled to be laid to rest yesterday at Bel Air Memorial Gardens, remembered by friends and family as a natural leader who did his job and did it right.

He could always be found with a mouthful of chewing tobacco, and he ran into burning buildings as a volunteer firefighter when not working on electrical wires for Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.

"He was just one of those type of guys who, you respected him and he was always there for you," said friend Rick Davis, 31, a fellow firefighter and lineman. "If you turned around, he was right there waiting for you."

His tough exterior, which friends said always had a softer side, had begun to melt away after the birth of his daughter, Olivia, in May.

On Father's Day, he received a gift from his wife - a photo of Olivia sitting in his firefighter's helmet, wearing a pink jumper that read, "My Daddy is a Fireman." Strong placed the picture on the dashboard of his truck, where it would always be in view. The tough guy was becoming a softie.

The e-mail surprised friend Hank Bumba, who worked alongside Strong as a BGE lineman for years before they graduated to becoming crew chiefs. In it, Strong talked about his wife, Tina, and how Olivia was starting to sit up on her own. He boasted that he and a co-worker were "Nos. 1 and 2" on the list to assist in Gulf Coast repairs. He also thanked Bumba for helping him achieve his goals in life.

"That floored me, because Skip don't talk like that," recalled Bumba, 54. "I thought, `You big, big, big, creampuff, you. If I take that thing up there and show your lineman buddies and macho [firemen], you're not gonna think it's the same guy.'"

They saw each other before Strong left for Texas, but the e-mail never came up - the men were doing what men do. But Bumba knew what he wanted to say to his friend.

"He really don't know how much he helped me," Bumba said. "He helped out a tremendous amount of people whether he knew it or not, just by being himself."

On Monday, Strong was riding in the passenger seat of a BGE truck driving through Mississippi, en route to Texas, when the vehicle swerved to miss an object in the road. The truck tumbled down an embankment, and Strong, who wasn't wearing a seatbelt, was trapped. The driver suffered injuries were not life-threatening.

BGE President Kenneth W. DeFontes Jr. said in a statement, "We were extremely grateful when all our employees who responded to Hurricane Katrina returned home safely, but now, with Hurricane Rita, we are reminded of the very real dangers that exist with such assignments."

Strong had participated in several disaster repairs up and down the East Coast. This one was to be no different.

"He told me, `See ya in three weeks, bub,'" said Davis.

Fellow firefighters and friends gathered at the firehouse Thursday, where they practiced loading an empty casket, draped in an American flag, onto the back of a fire engine.

Strong wasn't there to holler at them and make sure they did it right, as he often did at the scene of fires, but it was important to everyone that it be flawless.

"He woulda been up here making sure that not one person was out of step, that the flow of things went perfect," said friend Josh Krebs, 31.

The exercise also helped divert their frazzled emotions.

"We just have to keep moving to keep our minds off of it," Krebs said. "It's tough when it starts slowing down, and there's not a lot of things to do. You've got to keep moving and keep going, and that gets you through the day."

Krebs said that Strong's family was distraught over the death and did not wish to be interviewed. On Thursday, he wasn't even sure whether they'd speak at the funeral.

Olivia's pink jumper - along with his trademark chewing tobacco, a Mountain Dew and fire pager - were to be placed in the casket yesterday.

At the firehouse, where Strong was a role model for younger firefighters, members of the company have found solace in telling stories about him.

His helmet will be retired, and a new engine he helped get will be dedicated in his honor.

"That's something the young cadets here, the young trainees can take from this," said Bumba. "The way to remember Skip is to be a better lineman and better fireman."

And friends say they'll make sure Olivia knows about Strong.

"It's our responsibility to let her know how great her father was," Davis said. "And we'll do that."

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