Fla. county honors fallen firefighters by renaming road
Todd Aldridge and Mark Benge, who died 30 years ago, are the only firefighters in Orange County fire Rescue's history to have died in the line of duty
By Stephen Hudak
ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. — Orange County has renamed a portion of Forsythe Road for fallen firefighters Todd Aldridge and Mark Benge, who died in the line of duty 30 years ago this month.
“It’s important we never forget Todd and Mark’s sacrifice,” Aldridge’s sister, Beth Aldridge West, said Tuesday after county commissioners unanimously approved the posthumous honor. “These guys, as well as the other men and women of Orange County Fire Rescue, basically lay their lives down for us every day and I think people take it for granted.”
Aldridge, 27, and Benge, 29, are the only two firefighters in Orange County Fire Rescue's 38-year history to have died in the line of duty while fighting a fire. Each left behind a wife and two children.
The department is holding a special memorial ceremony Feb. 25.
Aldridge, Benge and fellow firefighter Richard Marcotte were inside the Sunrise Gift Center in Lake Buena Vista the afternoon of Feb. 24, 1989, trying to put out a fire that erupted in the store’s attic, when the roof collapsed on them. Marcotte was injured but survived the tragedy by using the air tank on his back to smash an illegally padlocked glass door and escape.
“The deaths of these brave men play an important role in not just our organization's history but also in the fire service industry,” Orange County Fire Chief Otto Drozd III said.
Aldridge and Benge were memorialized in Florida law in 2009 when state legislators passed the Aldridge-Benge Firefighter Safety Act, which requires commercial, industrial and multi-unit residential buildings to be marked with a warning placard if the structures were built with lightweight floor and roof trusses prone to collapse during a fire.
“The law is intended to protect firefighters throughout the state from the same situation that confronted Mark and Todd that day,” Drozd said.
The county chose the stretch of Forsythe Road between University Boulevard and East Colonial Drive to honor the firefighters’ legacy because the road is a route to Orange County Fire Rescue Headquarters and the department’s training facility. A special marker will be erected near the entrance·of the headquarters, located on Amory Court just south of University Boulevard.
“This designation will assure that each and every time our firefighters go down the road between our fire administration and our fire training facilities they will be reminded of the sacrifices made and will better understand the dangers they face to protect our community,” Drozd said.
The department has changed its firefighting protocol since 1989.
Firefighters never go into a burning house or building unless another firefighter is outside the structure watching for flames bursting through the roof or other signs that a blaze is raging out of control.
This month, county firefighters also are participating in exercises called the “Honor Challenge,” which simulate the situation faced by Aldridge and Benge 30 years ago.
“We’re teaching them to extricate themselves from the dangers Todd and Mark faced that day,” Drozd said. “It’s very important we learn from the past to ensure our future.”
Firefighters also will be issued a patch honoring the sacrifices of Aldridge and Benge. It includes the badge numbers of the men and the date of their last alarm.
Her lip trembling, Aldridge’s sister said the community may need to be reminded of the firefighters’ sacrifice but she will never forget.
She did not learn of the firefighting tragedy until the evening.
She said she arrived home from working out to find a note on her door from a friend. It read, “Hold a light to God...” She thought perhaps her grandmother had died.
“I thought, ‘Todd will know. I’ll call Todd’s house.’ I did and I got the news.”
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