'Hero' firefighter recovering slowly, hopes to return

Suspect to be arraigned for allegedly setting fire in jealous rage

  • Firefighter Jeffrey Novack, Truck Company 12, suffered burns to his arms, hands and face and fractured his hip and elbow in an April 7 fire. He was in the midst of a rescue when fire broke out in the apartment. The suspected arsonist is scheduled to be arraigned May 27, 2010.
Firefighter Jeffrey Novack, Truck Company 12, suffered burns… (Baltimore Sun photo by Kim…)
May 26, 2010|By Julie Scharper, The Baltimore Sun

Firefighter Jeff Novack had already carried an unconscious 86-year-old woman out of the burning West Baltimore apartment building, cradling her like a baby and handing her to paramedics.

But he had heard screams coming from the third floor and rushed back up the stairs, past flames shooting out of an apartment where, according to police, a woman had set fire to a lover's sofa in a fit of jealous rage. As dark, heavy smoke rose behind him, he struggled with a hysterical man in the stairwell.

Then, with a rush, a column of flames sped up the steps "like a freight train," Novack later recalled. He dashed into an open apartment, becoming separated from another firefighter and the agitated man. Unable to see in the thick smoke and shooting flames, Novack groped along the wall for a way to escape.

"Mayday, mayday," he called into his radio as he smashed open a window. He scrambled out, dangling by his fingertips, then felt a wave of intense heat stretch over his arms. Fire — hot enough to melt his gear — was blowing out above him, but Novack did not know what lay three stories below. He let go.

Today, after being hospitalized for more than a month, including two weeks at Maryland Shock Trauma Center, Novack is still in a wheelchair. The second-degree burns on his arms are beginning to heal, but the dressings must be changed in a painful and elaborate process every other day.

On Thursday morning, the woman police have accused of setting the April 7 blaze is due in Baltimore Circuit Court to be arraigned on charges of first-degree arson. Witnesses told police that Brittany Katina Garcia, 19, became enraged after discovering the father of her six-year-old son with another woman, broke the window of his apartment with the heel of her shoe and said, "there's a fire in your house now," according to court documents.

Jack Rubin, a defense attorney representing Garcia, said that she planned to plead not guilty and request a jury trial. He said he could not comment on specifics of the case.

First-degree arson is a felony in Maryland and carries a penalty of up to 30 years in prison, said Margaret T. Burns, a spokeswoman for Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy.

Novack, 23, is expected to testify at the trial. He faces a slow and painful recovery and months of arduous physical therapy from the burns and the injuries he suffered when he fell three stories to a cement walkway. The four-year veteran of the city Fire Department said he hopes his story dissuades anyone contemplating arson.

"She wanted to hurt one person, but she ended up hurting many more," said Novack, who has purplish scars and thick scabs on his hands and wrists.

Novack, who wears his hair in a short military crop and has a serious, self-effacing demeanor, shifts uncomfortably in his chair as he speaks, adjusting his broken shoulder and hip. An antique red fire-call box sits in the corner of the living room and firefighting manuals and a book of photographs of firetrucks are heaped on the coffee table.

Fire Chief James S. Clack lauds Novack as "a modern-day hero."

"He did what we hope all firefighters will do, and that's put his own life at risk to save others," Clack said.

The elderly woman whom Novack carried from the building suffered second-degree burns to her forearm and eye, but survived. The man in the stairwell did not suffer serious injuries, according to court documents.

Clack acknowledges that the system of rolling closures of stations caused by the city's financial problems slowed the response to the fire. Novack's truck company, which is housed less than a block away from the apartment building in the 3900 block of Liberty Heights Ave., arrived at the fire almost immediately.

But the fire engine housed with Novack's company was on a medical call and the next-closest engine was mothballed because of the rolling closures. When Novack, who as a member of a truck company is charged with search and rescue, dashed into the building, a fire engine crew had not yet set up hoses.

Clack said he is hopeful that the council will approve new taxes that will enable the city to reduce the number of daily closures. "I think we're operating at the very edge of what's safe right now," he said.

Firefighters have rallied around Novack, holding a fundraiser to pay the expenses of his parents while they stayed by his bedside. Members of the department moved Novack's bed and belongings into a first-floor bedroom of the Highlandtown rowhouse he shares with his brother, Scott Novack, 25, also a firefighter, and another member of the department.

"Guys we haven't even met yet have been reaching out to us," said the elder Novack. Both brothers wanted to be firefighters since early childhood, following in the footsteps of their father, Al Novack, a firefighter in suburban Philadelphia. The Novack brothers moved to Baltimore in September 2005 when both entered the fire academy.

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