`Motivation, dedication, pride'

Firefighters honor service, sacrifice of fallen cadet Racheal Wilson

February 17, 2007|By Annie Linskey | Annie Linskey,sun reporter

Six Baltimore fire recruits stood on the back of a firetruck holding a coffin containing the body of Racheal M. Wilson, a member of their academy class. They passed the coffin to six more recruits, and then to six more, who stood in front of New Psalmist Baptist Church.

The recruits, wearing crisp blue uniforms, then filed into the church, passing their dead classmate's two children and her fiance, and listened as the fire chief took to the pulpit and acknowledged that the academy, the instructors, and ultimately the city had failed.

"She came to us full of that drive and desire from which all of us who wear this uniform start," Chief William J. Goodwin Jr. told family, friends, colleagues and city leaders who gathered to mourn a life lost in a live-fire training accident on Feb. 9 that city officials say went terribly awry and did not conform to standards. "But we failed her."

The chief went on, hinting that the continuing investigation, in which three commanders have been suspended without pay, could lead to changes and improvements in the way future recruits are trained to fight fires in Baltimore.

"Racheal wanted to be a small part of our family." Goodwin said. "But through her sacrifice, she's changed us all. Racheal will never be just a small part of our family but our driving force to excellence."

The chief referred to the turmoil that has erupted in the department since the death, with angry union leaders, investigators examining the conduct of their colleagues and relatives of Wilson demanding answers.

"Not unlike all families, we have our issues," Goodwin said, adding later, "I suffer because I cannot undo those tragic series of events that led to her death. But because of Racheal, I can make sure they never happen again."

Hundreds seated in the church applauded.

Mayor Sheila Dixon sat in a front pew but did not address the mourners, respecting the family's wish that no elected officials speak at the funeral.

Outside the church, Dixon stressed that the investigation would be "transparent," but said little more about the first public safety crisis facing her new administration. This week, she expressed confidence in Goodwin's leadership.

Parents of recruits in the current academy class also said they had confidence in the department. One father, Meredith Brothers, said his son's love of the job has not been shaken by the accident. But Brothers told his son that safety should come first.

"Know your job, because accidents and lack of supervision will happen," Brothers said he advised.

Wilson's stepfather, Ambrose D. Slaughter, spoke twice during the service. Both times, he thanked firefighters for their support during the past few days, one time saying: "I pray for this fine city of Baltimore Fire Department."

Slaughter, a Denver police officer, also poked fun at the Fire Department, making the audience laugh when he referred to the firefighters as "hose-luggers."

He recalled telling Wilson to practice getting up in the middle of the night and then going back to sleep, because firefighters are called upon at all hours to extinguish flames.

But in a dig at the department, he said he recalled warning his stepdaughter: "They love to put out fires, especially in their own house."

A recurring theme was Wilson's long-held desire to become a firefighter. Goodwin said that she had worked as a civilian in the fire marshal's office before joining a cadet class.

Firefighter Keith Farrar, one of Wilson's instructors at the academy, said she spoke with him about what she needed to do to be successful. He recalled that she would motivate her classmates during physical training with the refrain: "Girl, if I can do it, I know you can."

Claytonia Everette, a fellow recruit, recalled early morning physical training with Wilson and bonding while cleaning up before breakfast.

"We washed, we laughed," she said. "We washed, we cried. We washed, we fussed. Whatever we did, we made sure we washed." Her classmates laughed.

After speaking, Everette called on the class to stand. "Class 19, I need everyone to be loud," she said.

"Is Class 19 ready?" she yelled.

"Always ready!" they replied.

"Class motto?" she prompted.

"Motivation, Dedication, Pride!" they yelled.

Another recruit from Wilson's class, Tina Strawberry, stood alone at the pulpit and sang "Amazing Grace." As the notes grew stronger and louder, female members of Wilson's family put their hands in the air and looked up.

Later, firefighters walked out of the church, and again, a small group of recruits climbed aboard the firetruck.

With bagpipes playing, recruits carried the coffin by a line of firefighters. Goodwin, watched, stood at attention and gazed ahead. His face betrayed no emotion. He saluted as the coffin was strapped to the fire engine, which led a lengthy procession to Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens.

Wilson is to be buried in Denver.

annie.linskey@baltsun.com

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