Family, friends mourn firefighter

Funeral and procession honor Allan M. Roberts, who died last Tuesday

October 17, 2006|By Annie Linskey | Annie Linskey,SUN REPORTER

A recording of the radio dispatch call echoed off the stone walls of the cathedral.

"Eastern Avenue ... person trapped on the second floor ... Engine 41 ... Engine 5 ... Truck 20 ... 512 South Macon Street ... two people trapped."

Not all of the words were clear, but the message was. This was the call for a fire that claimed the life of Allan M. Roberts, a 19-year veteran of the Baltimore Fire Department early last Tuesday. And they were the last he would hear from a dispatcher before heading into a burning rowhouse with two rookies by his side.

Firefighters and friends who had gathered to mourn in the cavernous Cathedral of Mary Our Queen on North Charles Street listened and sobbed. And when the brief recording had finished, Baltimore Fire Chief William J. Goodwin Jr. said: "What you heard was all the information Firefighter Roberts and 31 other human beings had" before Roberts and two others went into the Greektown rowhouse to search for missing people.

They quickly realized the blaze was too hot, but as they retreated, part of the ceiling collapsed, and the room burst into flames. Two were rescued. Roberts, a father of four, died of his burns.

"I always say my role is to make sure everyone goes home to their family," Goodwin said. "That didn't happen. I suffer with that."

The people reported to be in the house had escaped before the firefighters arrived. Investigators learned that an electrical short-circuit in a water heater started the blaze. The people in the home were apparently getting power from an unauthorized source.

A firefighter's funeral is rare in Baltimore. The last man to die while fighting a blaze perished 11 years ago in an eight-alarm inferno at the Clipper Industrial Park.

Yesterday, more than 50 fire trucks from across Maryland - and across the country - occupied several blocks of North Charles Street.

The hearse was red, not black. The casket carrying Roberts' body was transported on the back of Engine 27, from his firehouse in Northeast Baltimore. Men on his shift tied black ribbons to the sides and the back.

As it pulled up to the church, firefighters and police saluted. Civilians put their right hands over their hearts, against the shrill backdrop of bagpipes.

Firefighters and police wore their formal blue uniforms. Black bands covered their badges. Most had white gloves. Police Commissioner Leonard D. Hamm said 170 city police officers had been assigned to attend the funeral. "We're one and the same. We're one big family," he said.

The two men injured in the fire, Brandon Mattox and James Butler, stood near the stairs to the cathedral as the fire engine with the coffin inched by. Gauze was wrapped around the burns on their hands, a stark reminder of the dangers the firefighters face. Their wives, standing next to each other, held hands.

Most of these people didn't know Roberts. "That's what we do in the fire service. We don't have to know somebody. We do it out of respect," said John Frazier, a Baltimore fire commander.

Russell Sehlick, 73, with the Riviera Beach Volunteer Fire Department in Anne Arundel, said he's been to many funerals.

"Every time one of them passes away we try to show up. Especially if someone dies in the line of duty. The old saying is when you go out on the wagon you might not be coming back. You try to be safe ... but things happen."

Pallbearers lifted the coffin and carried it into the church. One man carried Roberts' formal blue hat. Another held his badge cupped in his hands. Others carried boxes for flags.

Roberts' family entered the church first, led by Jacob, his restless 5-year-old son, dressed in a suit and tie. But when his father's coffin came out, his face turned serious, and he saluted.

Mayor Martin O'Malley was one of three who delivered a eulogy. "We owe Allan's children a debt - and we will never be able to pay it back."

Addressing the children, the mayor said: "Your daddy was not a hero because of how he died. He was a hero because of how he lived."

Capt. David Goldman, who was Roberts' boss and a longtime friend, spoke for the family. "Nobody could ever stop him," Goldman said. Roberts was known as "the Beast from the Northeast," a reference to his Mannasota Avenue firehouse, Goldman said.

The crowd laughed when Goldman described Roberts' son as just like his father: "a little rebel."

At times Roberts could be rambunctious, and Goldman recalled frequently bringing him in to his office for talks. "He'd say, `You're right. We're still friends.'" Then the two would hug. "I wish he was here for that hug," Goldman said.

Once the speeches and the prayers were over, the firefighters in the church lined up to salute the casket, a tribute that took nearly 45 minutes.

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