Saved from a Feb. 10 blaze

In Dundalk, firefighters are honored for rescuing their trucks and their station

March 13, 2010|By Nick Madigan | nick.madigan@baltsun.com

When Jeremy M. McDonnell saw the flames blasting through the truck bay of the Dundalk Fire Station a month ago, he did the first thing that came to mind.

He saved his fire engine.

"I love this truck," McDonnell, a 28-year-old firefighter, said Friday, patting the side of the 500-gallon pumper, bought by Baltimore County from the Chicago Fire Department in 2001. "It's my responsibility."

McDonnell was one of 13 firefighters and paramedics who, along with two members of the Maryland National Guard, were honored Friday with "hero pins" and certificates by Baltimore County officials in recognition of their efforts to save the station from destruction.

All had been in the firehouse on Sollers Point Road early on Feb. 10 when an alarm went off, indicating a blaze - ironically - in their own building.

"It's not what you would expect," McDonnell said, ruefully. "It's like when a house burns - you never think it'll be your own."

The fire swept through the truck bay. It collapsed a large part of its roof and destroyed a new $600,000 fire engine, an ambulance worth $210,000, a so-called "brush unit" - a pickup truck equipped for firefighting in rough terrain at a cost of about $50,000 - and a National Guard Humvee that was based at the station during the blizzard that week.

But another ambulance and two fire engines - including the one assigned to McDonnell, which had only superficial damage - were saved, as was the rest of the fire station. No one was injured.

Officials estimate that it will cost more than $630,000 to rebuild the truck bay, a job that could last into summer.

With the smell of charred wood and brick still hanging in the air Friday, McDonnell recalled jumping into the cab of his truck as debris rained on its roof. Because the truck was parked next to the glass wall that connects the engine bay to the rest of the station, he feared a larger conflagration had he left the truck to burn.

"I was afraid that if we lost this, we would have lost the whole station," said McDonnell, who joined the department in 2003, when he was 21, and moved to the Dundalk firehouse station two years ago.

The blaze gives McDonnell "an old-man story" to tell his grandchildren, he said, even though, as he conceded, "I'm awfully young to have one of those stories."

In the wake of the fire, the station's work continued uninterrupted from temporary headquarters at Sollers Point Technical High School a few blocks away.

Two weeks after the fire, the debris was sufficiently cleaned up for the firefighters to return to their station even if some of the trucks have to sit outside in the driveway. The station has 45 employees across four shifts.

Investigators have not determined the cause of the fire. "They're still working through a process of elimination," said John J. Hohman, the county's fire chief.

None of the firefighters was responsible, Hohman said, since all were asleep when the blaze began.

John Olszewski Sr., the Baltimore County Council chairman who represents the county's southeastern district, attended the hero pin presentation and said he wanted to thank the firefighters for their "dedication and commitment but particularly their courage."

"We should learn to appreciate them each and every day," he said.

One by one, the firefighters and medics accepted the crowd's applause at a ceremony in the briefing room of the station: Besides McDonnell, they were identified as Dana A. Pack, Brandee L. Palmer, Adam M. Reininger, Samuel E. Abrams, Ginger M. Diegert, Thomas L. Kimbel, Tracey D. Henry, Stephanie A. Valencia, Jamie M. LaRoque, Ryan P. Downey and David R. Westbrook - and the two National Guard members, Staff Sgt. Ed Graham and Specialist Sherie Peeks.

The senior officer the night of the fire was Capt. Frederick L. Burkhardt, one of four captains assigned to the station. He said some firefighters in the station that night were off duty, but had come in hours before their shifts began because they feared not being able to get there if the storm - the second blizzard in less than a week - grew worse.

"Without them being here," Burkhardt said, "we might not be standing here, because there would have been a lot more damage."

Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. said, "This has been a hell of a winter."

In that context, he said, the firefighters' determination to get the station running again quickly was laudable, "and a source of pride for you and your community."

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