Graduation honors fallen recruit

Memory of Racheal Wilson takes center stage at Fire Department ceremony for 55 recruits

May 12, 2007|By Matthew Dolan | Matthew Dolan,Sun reporter

At an emotional graduation filled with bagpipes, tear-filled eyes and whooping cheers, Baltimore's firefighters dedicated their academy's auditorium yesterday evening to the first recruit to die during a live fire training exercise in the history of the department.

The city's still-scarred force cheerfully welcomed 55 of its newest members into its ranks, but the 90-minute ceremony never turned its attention far from the cadet lost along the way.

"You have already been touched by tragedy," Mayor Sheila Dixon told a packed crowd of recruits, joined by their relatives and friends. "You're all heroes in my book."

Three months ago, fire recruit Racheal M. Wilson died after entering a vacant Southwest Baltimore rowhouse where supervisors lost control of a training fire. The Feb. 9 fatal accident quickly exposed how the department failed to meet national safety standards, prompted the removal of its training chief and spurred union efforts to force the fire chief to step down.

Once heralded for his crisis leadership, Baltimore Fire Department Chief William J. Goodwin quickly shook up his training academy, rededicated the department to ensure the safety of recruits and requested funds for radios missing on the day of the fatal fire. But department critics continue to insist his stewardship remains insufficient to lead the department in the aftermath of the tragedy.

Those divisions were largely set aside yesterday as a somber but resolute Goodwin took the stage across from some of his fiercest critics, union chiefs Stephan G. Fugate and Rick Schluderberg.

Referring to Wilson's "eternal presence" in the department, Goodwin memorialized her death as among "the most tragic moments in the department's history." His new director of training, Joseph V. Brocato, recalled how Wilson's death threw the department into turmoil, forcing a huge turnover in the academy and raising serious questions about the ability of Class 19 to go forward.

Wayne Robinson, a 35-year-old former salesman from Canton, spoke for his fire recruit class yesterday, remembering the dark day after Wilson's death, when department officials sent him and his fellow recruits home for the weekend. Come back, they were told, only if you feel as if you can continue with your training successfully.

Every recruit returned on Monday, Robinson said, because "this is how we chose to honor Racheal."

In Wilson's honor, the academy staff earlier planted a maple sapling on the grounds of the training complex off Pulaski Highway. The union chiefs presented a large, glass-encased helmet shield to the class to mark Wilson's death. And Wilson Auditorium will host future generations of fire recruits entering the department, officials said.

As the last recruits accepted their silver badges and handshakes from the fire chief and mayor, Wilson's two children -- 8-year-old Princess and 11-year-old Cameron -- walked onto the stage to accept the same on behalf of their mother.

Soon after, they gathered with other family members to witness the unveiling of a new plaque at the auditorium to honor Wilson. It marked her death at 143 S. Calverton Road -- better known here as Firebox 14-5 -- and read, in part: "May her spirit live on in all who entered this hallowed place."

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