BALTIMORE COUNTY, Md. — Baltimore County Fire Department Capt. Roland Dembeck accepts that any time he enters a burning building he may have to pull a civilian out of the blaze.
Going into a fire to save a fellow firefighter is not something Dembeck ever expected after more than 20 years on the job. But that's exactly what Dembeck did on Jan. 19 when he climbed up a ladder and pulled Lutherville Volunteer Firefighter Mark Falkenhan out of a burning apartment building on Dowling Circle in Hillendale.
Dembeck rescued a gravely injured Falkenhan from the third floor of the building before emergency medical service personnel transported him to St. Joseph Medical Center in an unsuccessful effort to save his life.
"In our job, you are prepared to rescue civilians and are trained to save firefighters as well," Dembeck said. "But, to pull one of your own brothers out of a fire is the most difficult moment of my career."
Dembeck received the Silver Star, the fire department's second-highest award, on Tuesday for his efforts to save Falkenhan. He was one of numerous firefighters honored for their heroic efforts at that four-alarm fire and other events over the last year at the Baltimore County Fire Department's annual promotions and commendations ceremony at Goucher College in Towson.
"It's an award I wish I never won," Dembeck said. "I'm just honored that I was able to bring Mark out of that building and bring him home to his family so that they could say goodbye."
For making the ultimate sacrifice, Falkenhan was formally posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor—the fire department's highest honor—and a Purple Heart.
Tuesday's award ceremony also demonstrated how the fire that killed Falkenhan could have been even deadlier without the efforts of the dozens of firefighters on the scene.
These efforts included the work of Lt. David Dryden and fire specialist William Lutostanski Jr. of the Fullerton station. The pair rescued an unconscious female amid severe heat and fire. At one point, Lutostanski laid on top of the victim to protect her from the fire. Like Dembeck, Dryden and Lutostanski were awarded the Silver Star.
Howard County Fire Department Capt. Stephen M. Hardesty, a Falkenhan family spokesman, said the family is slowly working through the grieving process.
Gladys Falkenhan, Mark's widow, accepted the award to a standing ovation at the ceremony.
Gladys Falkenhan said she wants the public to know that she thankful for the love and support her family has received from so many people, including the county fire department and the U.S. Secret Service. Mark Falkenhan was a firefighter/paramedic in Baltimore County from 1990-2006 before taking a job with the Secret Service and volunteering with the Lutherville Volunteer Fire Company.
"Mark was a great firefighter and paramedic, but his true legacy will always be as a loving husband and a caring father to his sons, Christian and Garrett," said Hardesty, reading a prepared statement from Gladys Falkenhan.
"Mark made the ultimate sacrifice trying to save the lives of others," he said. "We're very proud to be here tonight as he is recognized with the Medal of Honor and Purple Heart. Mark would be humbled by all of this attention, as he never joined the fire department for recognition; he only wanted to help people and make a difference in his community."
The statement continued: "The one silver lining throughout this personal — and public — loss has been the love and continued support my family has received from countless individuals from across the country."
Those who battled that fatal blaze with Falkenhan are still coming to grips with his death, the first in the line of duty in Baltimore County since 1984. Among those people is Lutherville Volunteer Fire Co. Capt. Steve Weatherby.
"Seeing Mark honored here tonight helps provide a sense of closure, although we will never forget Mark and what he meant to all of us," Weatherby said. "We're a brotherhood and this is a long process of healing. Going out on calls again helps some because we know that's what Mark would have wanted us to do."
Middle River Volunteer Ambulance & Rescue Co. President Joe Davis said Falkenhan's death forced both career and volunteer firefighters/EMS providers to more closely examine how they live their lives. Falkenhan was a past chief and lifetime member at the Middle River company.
"I've seen marked changes in the personalities of firefighters and EMS providers since Mark died," Davis said. "People are more aware of the risks involved with the job and they definitely do a better job of communicating with their families and the ones they love."
Among the other firefighters/emergency medical services personnel honored at the ceremony:
EMT/Firefighter Shawn Maggaro, Firefighter/EMT Dan Kile and Fire Apparatus Driver/Operator Michael Scott received the Silver Star. The trio from the Fullerton station responded to a report of an overdose patient not knowing that he had a loaded gun. When the patient at 13 Glendower Court pulled out the gun and brandished it at fire and police personnel, Maggaro, Kile and Scott EMT/FF Shawn Magaro worked to grab the gun and subdued the patient.
Firefighters Frank Pollock and Todd Youngblood, along with Fire Apparatus Driver/Operator Dale Hess and Lt. John Jessa received the Bronze Star — the fire department's third-highest honor. On Feb. 21, 2010, the group from the Essex station rescued a man in a wheelchair from a house fire at 3201 Foxglove Lane.
Several civilians were also recognized for performing extraordinarily during emergencies. These included:
Donovan Jesse Ross, 6, who made a crucial 911 call during the brutal stabbing of his aunt at 2006 Woodlawn Drive.
J.D. Baier, 12, of Towson, who stopped the family's minivan when his grandmother forgot to put it in park and the van started dragging her through the parking lot.
Khory Haines, 4, of Cockeysville, who called 911 when her mother fell unconscious due to a medical condition.
August Weisenborn, of Parkville, and Cameron Stone, of Port Deposit, are two county highways workers who stopped on Feb. 8 while performing their usual duties to help an older man who refused to leave a burning house in Parkville.
Also, Jonathan Hart and Stephen Miller highlighted the group of 85 personnel that were formally promoted. Hart and Miller were promoted to the rank of division chief, the third-highest rank in the fire department.
Hart is the county's highest-ranking African-American ever and the first to become division chief. Hart — whose father rose to the rank of battalion chief in the Fire Department of New York before retiring and becoming chief of the Peoria (IL) fire department — joined the Baltimore County Fire Department in 1987.
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