Graduating fire cadets band together after tragedy of classmate's death

Legacy of Class 19

May 11, 2007|By Annie Linskey | Annie Linskey,sun reporter

Formal fire training for Class 19 is over.

The 55 cadets will graduate today - receiving their silver badges, shaking hands with the chief and beginning careers as city firefighters. But the class will likely be remembered for the one recruit not in attendance.

On Feb. 9, fire recruit Racheal M. Wilson died after a training fire burned out of control at a vacant city-owned rowhouse. She was 29 and had two children. The Fire Department later admitted that 36 national safety standards were not followed during that exercise.

"We've had a lot of rocks thrown our way," said Claytonia K. Everette, 31, who graduates today. Like others in the class, Everette said that Wilson's death forged a deep bond within the group.

"First we bickered, we argued, and then we became closer," Everette said. "They'll always remember Class 19."

Everette was one of the class members who spoke at Wilson's funeral.

"It's been a roller coaster ride," said another classmate, Tina M. Strawsburg, 36.

Both women were proud that no recruits have dropped out of the class since the fatal fire. They said they believe that helping one another survive the rigors of fire training was the best way to honor Wilson's memory.

They also harbor no ill will toward the department. Yesterday, they showed off a maple sapling that the academy staff planted on the grounds in Wilson's honor.

Everette, a former corrections officer, said that she hopes to be chief of the department one day but acknowledges that she has much to learn. "We're not heroes yet like those guys in the field," she said.

Other recruits said yesterday that they purposely insulated themselves from the internal turmoil that erupted at the department after the fatal training exercise. "A lot of us avoid the news," said Christopher Rondholz, 40, a former toy store owner.

Rondholz was at the fatal training exercise. He helped put Wilson in a stretcher and refers to the day as "the incident."

"There was so much heroism that came out," he said. "I've never seen a group pull together so much before."

His classmate, Wayne Robinson, 35, interjected: "It took us a long time to get there."

Robinson was also at the fatal exercise - one of the people who helped pull Wilson out of the third floor of the burning house.

"With Racheal's death, something good has come out of it," he said. "We are being looked at more closely. We have received more training. No other class has faced live fire like we have."

In the months that the class struggled to make sense of Wilson's death, major changes were announced in the department they were striving to join.

Mayor Sheila Dixon fired the head of the training academy and asked a Howard County firefighter to lead a team reviewing safety and training standards at the city's department weeks after the fatal fire.

Fire Chief William J. Goodwin Jr. moved new instructors to the academy and sought emergency funds to purchase new radios for instructors - vital equipment missing the day of the fatal fire.

He also beefed up the department's safety office and announced plans to rotate most midlevel managers to new fire houses. Earlier this week, Goodwin said at a news conference that the culture of the department would need to change to become more focused on safety.

The changes - and the way that the investigation into Wilson's death has been handled - opened old wounds between the administration and the leadership of the city's two fire unions. Both union heads have called for the chief to step down, and both unions have held multiple no-confidence votes in his leadership.

And since February, the department's training academy, usually considered an out-of-the-way posting, has been closely monitored.

"It is a fishbowl," said Capt. John Ellis, an instructor who was transferred to the academy in the end of February to help with Class 19.

"Everybody has been out here. You name it. Dixon. The fire chief is out here regularly. Everyone is asking, `How are they doing?'"

Ellis said the new instructors had to work hard to earn the recruits' trust. "When we came in, there was disarray," he said. "We were able to regain their confidence in the Fire Department."

About Wilson, Ellis said: "This is their legacy. This is their unfortunate legacy."

But later, Ellis thought about it, and added: "They are not going to allow this to be their defining issue. I think they want their careers to be the defining issue."

When asked whether the class is ready to fight city fires, Ellis said: "The majority of them are."

Upon graduation, each member of the class will work as an extra firefighter at a busy city fire station for the next 30 days - additional seasoning to prepare them for their careers, Ellis said.

Among the members of Class 19 is Charles M. Smothers, a former city police officer who garnered media attention after, while on duty, he shot and killed a man who was wielding a knife in Lexington Market in 1997.

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