Fatal firetruck crash recalls earlier tragedy

WAY BACK WHEN

Back Story

December 15, 2007|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,Sun reporter

The Sunday morning crash of a Baltimore firetruck and a sport utility vehicle at Park Heights Avenue and Clarks Lane, in which three lost their lives, was eerily reminiscent of a crash between two firetrucks at Park Heights and Rogers avenues on Nov. 9, 1949.

At 3:10 on a warm late-autumn afternoon, an alarm sounded from Box 8664, reporting a grass fire at Glen and Key avenues.

A hook-and-ladder truck from Truck Company 22 responded and traveled north on Park Heights Avenue at 55 mph with its siren screaming.

At the same time, a hose truck from Engine Company 46, also with its siren blaring, was rolling east on Rogers Avenue at about 35 mph.

As the two fire trucks roared toward the intersection, John W. Stiegler, a Northwestern District traffic patrolman, heard the sirens of the approaching engines and hustled recently released schoolchildren from a nearby school back on the curb.

"Then I heard the siren of Engine 46 coming east on Rogers Avenue and I recall now that it crossed my mind that the two trucks were going to hit the intersection at about the same time," Stiegler told The Evening Sun.

Stiegler rushed into the street and stood in the center of the intersection with both hands over his head as a signal for one of the trucks to stop.

With only seconds left and with the two engines bearing down on the intersection, Stiegler made a last desperate attempt for Engine 46 to stop, thereby giving the right of way to the faster-moving ladder truck.

"Suddenly, I realized the driver of the hose truck apparently did not see my signal and was bearing down on me. It was then that I leaped out of the way, and in the next instant, the two vehicles came together with a terrific crash," he said.

As the engines collided, Stiegler told reporters, he saw three firefighters catapult through the air while the driver of the ladder truck, which finally came to rest after hitting a steel trolley pole, lay pinned and slumped over the crushed steering wheel.

The hose truck skidded on for another 50 feet before finally coming to a stop after plowing into the rear of a parked four-door Cadillac sedan.

Albert Abell, who worked at a nearby Crown filling station, told The Sun he could see the driver of the ladder truck "nod back and forth a couple of times. Then his head slumped forward and he was still."

Lewis Taich, a pharmacist, dashed from his drugstore to the side of the firefighter crushed under the steering wheel.

"I worked to help extricate him but I'm sure he was dead when we got him out," he told The Sun.

"It was like a terrible bombing. I heard the crash and rushed right to the door. As I opened the door, I saw a body hurtling through the air and land sprawled on the sidewalk," Matilda Levene, a Park Heights Avenue resident, told The Sun.

"He moved his arm for a minute and then just lay still," she said. "There were three other bodies on the lawn. It was just terrible."

"Both of them had their sirens screaming and I guess they couldn't hear each other," Abell said at the time.

Killed in the crash were Joseph A. Remekis, 35, driver of the ladder truck; Lt. Charles "Buck" Pfaff, 57, who was thrown from the front seat of the hose truck; James W. Haynie, 26, who was riding on the rear of the hose truck and was hurled through the air; and Joseph B. Magaha, 25, who was thrown from the ladder truck.

Firefighters Harry Burke, Joseph H. Greiser, Kenneth Medley and William Flanigan suffered injuries that included broken legs and internal wounds.

"I saw 46 coming," Medley told The Sun. "Yes, I heard it. I braced myself, but when we hit the pole I was thrown against the turntable and bounced off into the street."

Seven city ambulances and one from Pikesville rushed the injured to West Baltimore General Hospital and South Baltimore General Hospital.

The Fire Department had delayed for several hours informing Mrs. Joseph Magaha that her husband had been killed in the accident.

She was sitting in her home in the 1200 block of Guilford Ave. where she lived with her husband and two children, Joseph Jr., 2, and Audrey Frances, 11 months.

She heard a siren, and went to the window where she observed a departmental tow truck slowly moving along the street pulling a wrecked fire engine. She instantly recognized the battered fire truck as that of her husband's from Ladder 22.

A few moments later, a battalion chief arrived to tell her that her husband was dead.

"The profession of fire fighting is a dangerous one. The men who man the trucks and hoses know this. So do their anxious families," said an editorial in The Evening Sun. "But that does little to relieve the shock which comes when tragedy strikes in the line of duty as it did yesterday."

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

Find previous columns at baltimoresun.com/backstory.

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