Pittsburgh firefighters continue proud tradition of service
By Robin Acton
The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
PITTSBURGH — In Pittsburgh's infancy, men, women and children came running to help when bells atop the Presbyterian Church tower warned of fire.
Anyone strong enough to lift a bucket fell into two long lines and passed pail after pail of water to douse the flames. Weary brigades often worked for hours, sending empties down the line to be refilled again and again until the fire was out.
Fires — sparked by fireplaces, oil lamps and cooking — broke out often in the late 1700s, when volunteers in the frontier town had no equipment, protective gear or technology to stop a blaze that could spiral out of control within minutes.
Back then, firefighting came down to people and buckets.
Fire service in Pittsburgh has come a long way since 1794, when the first volunteer fire company, the Eagle Fire Engine and Hose Company, was formed. But although sophisticated equipment and technological advances transformed firefighting techniques in the past two centuries, it still comes down to people.
"I know that the fellows I work with are not going to let me down, and I'm not going to let them down either," says firefighter John Gombita, 52, a 10-year veteran of the Pittsburgh Fire Bureau.
"There's a trust there. It's been that way since the beginning."
Retired master firefighter John Arnold, 53, of Morningside calls the camaraderie of firefighting "the brotherhood of the badge." Firefighters work together, cook and eat their meals together, and live together on a schedule of 24 hours on duty followed by 72 hours off.
Firefighters say the schedule, decent wages, family tradition and a sense of duty helped them choose their career. They stay because they fall in love with it.
"It's the best job, although some people wouldn't have it because you're putting your life in jeopardy sometimes two and three times a day," says Arnold, who spent most of his 25-year career in the No. 39 Engine House in Troy Hill.
In Pittsburgh, the brotherhood began with the men of Eagle company, who collected money from community leaders to buy the first fire engine for the borough at the triangular meeting point of the Monongahela, Allegheny and Ohio rivers.
The engine was little more than a primitive wooden rectangular box with two compartments, a copper-lined water trough and a dual-chambered pump that was operated by crank handles at the ends. Firefighters carried the box to the fire, where the trough was filled by a bucket brigade. Men cranked the handles, pumping water into a hose that could pour a spout 100 feet long.
From then on, there was no looking back.
Volunteers organized in different areas as Pittsburgh's neighborhoods expanded, and by 1816, when the borough was incorporated as a city, there were four chartered volunteer companies serving more than 1,000 homes. They were assisted by residents who were required by law to keep buckets in their homes for brigade duty.
"Everyone was required to carry a bucket and throw water on a fire. If you were able-bodied, you had to go or you were fined," Gombita says.
Gombita, a former Army paratrooper and plumber, joined the fire bureau after a mid-life career change a decade ago. Based with the No. 6 Engine and Truck Company in Lawrenceville, the one-time University of Pittsburgh history major has become the bureau's unofficial historian.
He goes to the library and reads old newspapers on microfiche, does research online and pores through the few books written about the bureau. But there are gaps in the information, he says, noting that little has been written about the middle and later decades of the last century after World War II.
There is no fire museum in the city, nor is there an official effort to gather information or memorabilia to preserve the bureau's history.
"That's sad, because there are so many good stories. People tell me 'You have to bring these guys to life,' " he says.
Milestones and memories
Pittsburgh's firefighting history is rich with characters, drama and tales of selfless dedication.
In the 1820s, the "guys" included Pittsburgh's first female volunteer, Marina Betts, who ran from her Shinbone Alley home and manned the bucket brigades along with her male neighbors whenever the fire bells sounded. Gombita says Betts — a strong, dark-skinned woman who volunteered for almost 20 years — was known for tossing buckets of water on men who couldn't keep up with her speed and skill.
Two decades later, volunteers and bucket brigades were no match for a fire that consumed a huge chunk of Pittsburgh.
Flames from a washwoman's boiling kettle ignited dry grass and spread to a wooden icehouse owned by William Diehl before fanning out across the city on April 10, 1845, in a blaze known as the Great Fire. By the time it was over, more than a third of the city was reduced to charred, smoldering ruins, with almost 1,000 buildings destroyed and more than 12,000 people left homeless.
"There were not many buildings then over two stories. With people using only leather buckets on the lines, it wasn't hard for the fire to get out of control," Gombita says.
A year after many of Pittsburgh's volunteer companies merged to form a paid department, firefighters rushed to help their brothers in Chicago, where a fire that started on Oct. 8, 1871, burned out of control for three days. Men from Engine Co. No. 2 loaded their engine onto a flat rail car and traveled to Chicago by train.
The Chicago blaze is blamed for the death of a Pittsburgh firefighter, Paschal Nardi, who fell ill immediately upon returning home. He was the first of Pittsburgh's paid firefighters to die as the result of duty, Gombita says.
Firefighters then had no safety protection and primitive equipment, Gombita adds, putting the scenario into historical perspective by explaining that Gen. George Custer was fighting Indians on the plains at the time. Firefighters then wore leather helmets, boots and gloves, covered their faces with kerchiefs to block soot and smoke, pumped water by hand and doused flames with hoses that had no shutoff valves.
Historian Mary Wohleber, 91, of Troy Hill recalls that horses were used by firefighters even during her childhood, when she lived across the street from the firehouse.
"We worshipped those horses; they were so huge," she says. "I remember the big doors of the fire station opening wide and the horses coming streaming out of there. When the horses' hoofs hit the cobblestone streets, sparks would fly, and we would run and try to follow them."
A few stations, including No. 34 Engine Company on Observatory Hill, bear witness to those days. Firefighters eat their meals and relax in worn recliners in a room once used as a stable, and an ornate circular staircase — built to prevent horses from following the firefighters upstairs at night — still leads them to their second-story bunk rooms.
Wohleber's admiration for firefighters led her to research firefighting in Allegheny City from its 1828 incorporation as a borough to its annexation with Pittsburgh in 1907, the year that fire companies from the two areas were consolidated. Her book, "History of the City of Allegheny Fire Department," details the critical role firefighters played in the community.
"I don't think that there's anything that deserves respect and admiration more than these firemen," she says.
Era of change
In the early 1920s, Pittsburgh's fire department underwent a reorganization and consolidation that eliminated some hose companies, as motorized equipment cut response times between neighborhoods. By the end of the decade, firefighters were using only motorized or tractor-driven pumpers and trucks.
During the next decade, firefighters endured many challenges, including another consolidation as a cost-saving measure during the Depression. Six engine companies were shut down as the department downsized.
A horrific fire in 1931 killed more than 40 elderly nursing home residents and injured dozens more at the Little Sisters of the Poor in the city's Garfield section, according to news reports about rescue efforts of police and firefighters who carried many of the 230 residents to safety.
Five years later, during the Great Flood of 1936, firefighters rescued thousands of stranded people as the three rivers overflowed their banks on St. Patrick's Day. Floodwaters destroyed some 100,000 buildings, killed at least 70 people and injured 500 or more, according to news reports. The flood also wiped out electricity for more than a week, leaving the fire department unable to fight fires because pumps would not work at water intake facilities.
By World War II, the city had recovered, but the fire department lost many firefighters when they were called to military service. During the war years, firefighters who left their jobs were replaced with temporary substitutes until the firefighters returned.
Little has been documented about the department in the years after the war, according to Gombita, who relies on newspaper and magazine archives and a few locally published books to fill in the blanks.
"From the '40s, '50s and '60s, things are tough to find," he says. "I'm sure someone has something sitting around somewhere, but I don't know where."
One book, "We Have a Box Working," by retired Mt. Lebanon firefighter John R. Schmidt, details a 1947 explosion and fire at the Monongahela Wharf in a pleasure steamboat, the "Island Queen." Schmidt wrote that more than 30 people were killed in the fire that spread from the boat to cars parked on the wharf, including some crew members who had jumped ship to escape and were found drowned.
Schmidt, who chronicled the city's equipment purchases, expansion and landmark fires, compiled meticulous accounts and gathered hundreds of photos of firehouses, firefighters and their trucks for the book, which Gombita says is the most comprehensive source of information he's found.
The book includes anecdotal accounts of the turbulent 1960s, when firefighters responding to fires in the city's ghetto neighborhoods often were greeted by angry mobs shouting obscenities. Schmidt wrote that armed National Guardsmen often rode with firefighters on their rigs.
By 1974, when Moe Mahoney joined the fire department, the turbulent times were over. Mahoney, 70, who spent 32 years on the job until his retirement five years ago, loved every minute of it.
"I miss jumping on the pumper truck and going," says Mahoney, who works part-time in the offices of the city's firefighters' labor union, Local No. 1, the nation's first firefighting union.
Although he retired, Mahoney remains active with the department's color guard and bagpipe unit. On a rainy Friday in early March, he stopped by the No. 4 Engine Company to gather flags for the funeral of a Grove City firefighter.
"We do this out of respect," Mahoney says, adding that a firefighter's funeral is attended by firefighters and units from miles around.
That's just part of the bond of the brotherhood, firefighters insist.
Firefighter Tim Resutko, 47, of Highland Park followed in his father's footsteps when he chose firefighting as a career.
"It's a brotherhood in the whole world," says Resutko, who works at the No. 6 Engine and Truck Company. "Anywhere you go, any town, city or country, it's a universal thing. As a firefighter, you are universally accepted no matter where you go."
Derek Becker, 29, who is on Resutko's crew, heard many stories about the camaraderie from firefighters in his family: his grandfather, father and two older brothers. He loves the close bonds he shares with his colleagues.
"I could have gone to college and done something else, but this is what I wanted to do. I really enjoy serving the public," he says.
When Kim Griffiths, 37, told her elementary school classmates that she wanted to be a firefighter, they laughed at her because she was a girl and they thought she couldn't do it, she says. For the same reason, her fifth grade teacher made her rewrite a report in which she talked about her career goals.
She proved them wrong.
Griffiths, one of 13 female firefighters in the 634-member department led by Fire Chief Darryl Jones, spent nine years in the Air Force fighting fires before taking a job with the city. She and her firefighter husband, Bob Griffiths, have worked out their schedules so that one of them is always at home with their two sons.
"My kids are used to it," she says, adding that her sons love to visit her at the fire station.
Griffiths is among a new generation of firefighters in what Assistant Chief of Operations Francis Deleonibus describes as a "young department." Retirements of some 260 firefighters in 2005 resulted in the biggest hiring effort in years, he says.
"We are rebuilding. It's an exciting time. We have a lot of new young people and younger officers who are eager and anxious to learn," says DeLeonibus, 55, a 35-year veteran of the department.
The department is promoting education and training programs to make the city the "lead agency" in firefighting in the region, he says, adding that it is the city's goal to make people look at Pittsburgh as a role model in firefighting techniques.
Training and education about the risks of firefighting and risk management are among his top priorities, Deleonibus says.
"You do all you can to rescue people, but if that's not involved, you have to assess the situation. If it's property only, you attempt to control the fire without putting people in danger," he says.
In recent years, dangers of fire have become all too apparent within the city's department.
In 1995, three firefighters -- Capt. Thomas Brooks, Marc Kolenda and Patricia Conroy -- died on Valentine's Day when they became trapped and ran out of air in a burning home on Bricelyn Street in the East Hills. Conroy was city's first female firefighter killed in the line of duty.
On March 13, 2004, Battalion Chief Charles G. Brace and firefighter Richard A. Stefanakis died in a collapse while fighting a blaze at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in the city's Hill District.
Firefighters say tragedies like those blazes remind them that they must approach their jobs with respect — and a little fear — every day.
"It keeps you safe," says Third Battalion Chief Jim Washabaugh, 50, a firefighter for 22 years.
Gombita says firefighters trust each other in dangerous situations. That trust, he says, is rooted in teamwork, at the firehouse and at the fire scene.
In the station, there are chores to be done, including daily cleaning, cooking and equipment checks. The firefighters work out on exercise equipment, cook, read, do laundry, work on computers and watch television between runs.
"But we are at our best when someone else is in trouble," Gombita says. "What we do isn't a job; it's a career and a service to the public.
"It's 'report for duty,' not 'report to work.' To us, it's not a job. It's a fraternity."
Pittsburgh's Fire Bureau has a rich history marked by tireless dedication of thousands of firefighters who have served the city for generations. This is a timeline of the bureau's early years, from the formation of the first volunteer fire company to the city's annexation with Allegheny City.
--1793: Citizen volunteers who regularly manned bucket brigade lines formed a social club, the Pittsburgh Fire Company.
--1794: The club became the Eagle Fire Company, precursor to the Eagle Fire Engine and Hose Company. The company's first firefighting engine, bought in Philadelphia, arrived in Pittsburgh on a wagon.
--1802: The second volunteer company, Allegheny Engine and Hose Company, was chartered.
--1811: Vigilant, the third volunteer company, was formed.
--1815: One year before the borough was incorporated as a city, the Neptune company was formed.
--1820s: Marina Betts became Pittsburgh's first female firefighter as she worked alongside men on bucket brigades. She was known to dump buckets of water on men who refused to help douse fires.
--1838: Niagara, the last of Pittsburgh's "famous five" volunteer fire companies, was chartered.
--1845: Pittsburgh's Great Fire started at the intersection of Ferry and Second streets, when a washwoman's kettle fire ignited grass, spread to an icehouse and raged throughout the city. The April 10 blaze wiped out a third of the city, destroyed 982 buildings, caused $8 million in damage and left 12,000 people homeless.
--1861: "Dog Jack," a stray bull dog, became the mascot of the Niagara Volunteer Fire Engine House on Penn Avenue. When the members enlisted in the 102nd Regiment of the Pennsylvania Volunteers, Washington Infantry, during the Civil War, Jack went along and remained with the regiment during its battles. Twice captured, he was exchanged for Confederate soldiers and released from prison. He was wounded twice and recovered, but disappeared on Dec. 23, 1864.
--1870: The city's paid fire department was formed. Annual salaries totaled $1,200 for the chief engineer, $840 for the assistant chief engineer, $840 for foremen, $820 for steam engine engineers, $750 for engineer drivers and $720 for all other firemen.
--1877: Striking Pennsylvania Railroad workers rioted against the Pennsylvania Militia. Violent crowds burned 1,200 freight cars, 104 engines, 48 passenger cars and 39 company buildings, including the Union Depot and Hotel.
--1901: A gigantic fire that started at the Western Pennsylvania Exposition Building burned a number of exhibit buildings, consumed 20 nearby homes and claimed the life of one firefighter.
--1903: The City Firemen's Protective Association, a group initially formed to improve working and living conditions for firefighters, was organized on Sept. 11 as Local No. 1, the nation's first firefighters union.
--1907: When Allegheny City was annexed to Pittsburgh, its 10 engine companies, six hose brigades and five hook and ladder companies merged with Pittsburgh's 35 engine companies, two chemical and ladder companies and 11 truck companies to become the consolidated Pittsburgh Bureau of Fire.
Sources: "Pittsburgh's Vintage Firemen," by Howard Worley Jr; "We Have a Box Working, The Pittsburgh Fire Department," by John R. Schmidt; Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine archives; and various newspaper accounts.
At least 99 men and one woman have given their lives in the line of duty while serving with the Pittsburgh Fire Bureau. This is the most comprehensive list available, compiled from materials in the book "We Have a Box Working," by John R. Schmidt, Tribune-Review archives and information provided by the city of Pittsburgh.
The honor roll includes these fallen firefighters:
Copyright 2008 The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review