Grief, pomp and bagpipes for fallen firefighter

Mark G. Falkenhan, 43, died last week in burning apartment; remembered as hero, teacher, friend

January 24, 2011|By Nick Madigan, The Baltimore Sun

Within a sea of blue firefighters' uniforms, some people could not contain their sorrow, and others didn't even try.

The flag-draped casket bearing the body of Mark G. Falkenhan, the veteran Baltimore County firefighter who died in a blaze last week, was carried Monday from the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, led by a lone bagpiper. Hundreds of white-gloved hands snapped a simultaneous salute.

The grief-stricken widow, Gladys Falkenhan — who lost her father, another firefighter, only last month — held a scarf to her face as she gripped her eldest son's hand. The dead firefighter's 85-year-old father, Casper Falkenhan, ailing and in a wheelchair, watched forlornly as the casket was carried to a vintage, black-and-white fire truck bound for Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens in Timonium.

"We all know Mark was no average man," Baltimore County Fire Chief John J. Hohman told the crowd of about 3,000 during the funeral service in the cathedral. "If you met him one time, you never forgot him."

The fire chief listed Falkenhan's accomplishments during a 16-year career with the department, and noted the widespread disappointment when Falkenhan decided in 2006 to take a new job, with the U.S. Secret Service.

"I was very unhappy to see him leave," Hohman said, although he was just as glad when it became clear that Falkenhan would return to serve as a volunteer firefighter, in both Middle River and Lutherville, as well as an instructor with the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute, as a member of an honor guard and as part of the department's Critical Incident Stress Management Team.

It is ironic, Hohman said, that in the latter role, Falkenhan would have helped to console his colleagues "when a tragedy like this occurs."

"All of us in this profession willingly accept certain risks," Hohman went on. "His legacy as one of our heroes is secure, but this does not lessen our pain. Let us draw strength from his example."

In his letter of resignation from the staff five years ago, Falkenhan wrote a verse that said, in part: "The man who's determined to make his world better, who's willing to learn and lead, the man who keeps trying and doing his best, is the man who succeeds."

After reading the excerpt from the letter, Hohman said Falkenhan "was indeed a man who succeeded — he wanted to, and did, make this place a better world."

Falkenhan, 43, became trapped while searching for residents of a third-story apartment during a fire Wednesday night in Hillendale, his last words a "mayday" distress signal that indicated a need for immediate help. Because of the ferocity of the fire, the help came too late.

"He wasn't even supposed to be there," said Denise Weimer, a family friend whose sister, Stacy Ambrose, had worked with Falkenhan in Middle River as an emergency medical technician and remained close with him and his wife. "He was in a class at Lutherville when the call came in, and he went. It was his first run in a long time. He'd said that he wanted to do more runs, that he missed the work, but he hadn't done any in a while because he was too busy with the Secret Service."

Asked how the Falkenhan boys — Christian, 14, and Garrett, 5 — were doing after their father's death, Weimer said, "I don't know if the little one is really clear on what happened. They're holding up. I think they'll all fall apart when this is all over."

Darrylynn Griffin, director of the Family Health Center at Franklin Square Hospital Center, where Gladys Falkenhan works as an administrative assistant, said some of the other employees had donated some of their work hours so that she could take time off. "She just had to do the same with her father's death," Griffin said. "I feel for the older boy — he's going to have some big shoes to fill."

Falkenhan was the first Baltimore County firefighter to die while battling a fire since the Shiller's Furniture and Appliance Store fire on Oct. 22, 1984, which took the lives of three men, Walter Bawroski Sr., Henry Rayner and James Kimbel.

Such tragedies left Falkenhan all the more determined, a "young man from Middle River who wanted to make a difference in his community," said Richard Brooks, a retired Baltimore County fire captain who serves as chief of the Cecil County Department of Emergency Services. As Brooks began to explain that Falkenhan had worked in nine fire stations during his 16 years with the department, he was interrupted by the firefighter's widow in the front row, who told him that her husband used to play those stations' numbers in the Maryland lottery.

"You're kidding," Brooks said, to rising laughter from the crowd, which included Gov. Martin O'Malley and other officials.

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