Firefighters and December
Reflecting on major incidents that struck the fire service in December and honoring the firefighters who died in the line of duty, serving their communities
The following is reprinted with permission from FirefighterCloseCalls.com, home of The Secret List.
This article, originally posted Dec. 3, 2018, has been updated.
Each December, there are some very significant dates for the fire service worthy of note and well worth kitchen table discussion with firefighters – especially with the younger ones.
Here are just a few of these dates to address, with video, webinar and related links to support discussions or training efforts.
The Our Lady of Angels fire anniversary (Dec. 1, 1958) in Chicago where 92 kids and four nuns lost their lives – a day in 1958 where the heroics of Chicago firefighters were well documented.
And in that same city, Dec. 22, 2010, Chicago Firefighters Corey Ankum and Ed Stringer were killed in a collapse – on the 100th anniversary of the Union Stock Yards fire that killed 21 Chicago Firefighters.
Struck and killed
At 2200 hours on Dec. 8, 2017, on southbound I-270, in Montgomery County (Maryland) Deputy Chief State Fire Marshal Sander Cohen of the Maryland Office of the State Fire Marshal and FBI Special Agent Carlos Wolff were both killed when they were struck on I-270. Deputy Chief Cohen had attempted to assist and protect Wolff. Being struck is the No. 1 means of firefighters being killed via trauma in the line of duty.
Every firefighter should be familiar with the multi-LODD loss in Buffalo (New York) when five Buffalo FD Ladder 5 Firefighters (and two civilians) were killed in a propane explosion on Dec. 27, 1983.
- 30 years later, survivors recount horror of propane blast
- 'Disaster on North Division': 34 years ago, six died in tragic propane explosion
And on Dec. 20, 1991, four firefighters were killed when they were trapped in a partial floor collapse in Brackenridge, Pennsylvania. Ever read that report? Here it is along with photos.
Worcester (Massachusetts) warehouse fire takes the lives of six firefighters
In December 1999, there were also two other very significant multiple firefighter line of duty death fires that we must remember.
The first is the Worcester Cold Storage fire that occurred on Dec. 3, 1999. The second, discussed below, is the loss of three firefighters in Keokuk, Iowa.
We all remember wonderful, but also (and sadly), tragic events that have occurred in our lives. On Dec. 3, 1999, I was attending a community Christmas celebration in our town when beepers started to beep providing initial details about missing firefighters in Worcester – and then more details – and then even more info and the final incredible details came out.
The Worcester Fire Department responded at 1813 hours that night to Box Alarm 1438 for a fire at 266 Franklin Street. 266 Franklin Street is now the address and location of WFD's E-6, E-12, L-1, R-1 and Scuba-1 quarters.
Two members of WFD Rescue 1, Firefighter Paul Brotherton and Firefighter Jerry Lucey, entered the building searching for occupants. Fire conditions worsened in the building at a rapid and unexpected rate. FFs Brotherton and Lucey, on the fifth floor, became disoriented in the smoke-filled building. Lost and running low on air, they called for help.
Several crews began searching for the lost firefighters. Two crews reaching the fifth floor also found themselves disoriented in the smoke and trapped by the maze of interior walls: Lieutenant Tom Spencer and Firefighter Tim Jackson from Ladder 2, and Firefighter Jay Lyons and Firefighter Joe McGuirk from Engine 3 were now trapped. Though many more highly heroic Worcester Firefighters attempted to locate their missing brothers, their efforts proved futile.
Be sure to read the link below, entitled "A chief’s perspective," about WFD District (Ret.) Chief Mike McNamee, who made the beyond difficult decision to end search operations for the missing members – and saved more lives by doing so.
The line of duty deaths of Worcester Firefighters Paul A. Brotherton, Timothy P. Jackson, Jeremiah M. Lucey, James F. "Jay" Lyons III, Joseph T. McGuirk, and Lt. Thomas E. Spencer devastated Worcester, the fire service, the nation and the world. Their line of duty deaths marked the worst loss of firefighters' lives in more than 20 years in a building fire in America, and the third worst fire in Massachusetts' history. RIP.
- USFA Report
- The perfect fire
- Photos: Remembering the 6 firefighters who died in the Cold Storage fire
- Video: Interview with Worcester District Chief Mike McNamee
- Video: Remembering the deadly Worcester Cold Storage warehouse fire
- A Minute Decided Worcester's Fate
- Firetraps across city rated ‘X’ for danger
- Sorting through memories of ’99 Worcester Cold Storage fire
- The Worcester six
- NIOSH Report
Worcester Firefighter Christopher Roy killed in apartment fire
The Cold Storage Warehouse fire wasn’t the only tragedy to strike Worcester in December. On Dec. 9, 2018, Christopher J. Roy of Shrewsbury, 36, died after becoming trapped on the second floor of a burning building on Lowell St. Fellow firefighters were able to pull him out of the building, but he died from his injuries. Worcester EMS paramedic Sean Doherty penned the poem “December Mourn” to remember Roy.
Another Worcester firefighter died in the line of duty on Dec. 8, 2011.
Keokuk, Iowa: The loss of three firefighters and three children in a duplex fire
At 0824 hours on Dec. 22, 1999, a fire was reported in a multifamily dwelling in Keokuk, Iowa. Several neighbors phoned the Keokuk 911 center to report smoke coming from a residence, and that a woman was outside screaming that there were children trapped inside.
Keokuk Assistant Fire Chief Dave McNally, 48, Firefighter Jason Bitting, 29, and Firefighter Nate Tuck, 39 were killed while attempting the rescue of three trapped kids in that fire – who also perished. The three firefighters left eight kids of their own behind.
The firefighters died when a flashover occurred while the three were doing their search. The fire started in the kitchen of an old wooden two-story b/f home that had been converted into apartments. Staffing is a major issue in Keokuk, and that morning, four of the five total (plus the chief) on-duty firefighters arrived on scene with heavy smoke showing, and upon hearing the mother screaming that her children were trapped inside, they immediately and understandably went in after them. When mom screams that her kids are inside – we go in.
The three were inside, (the asst. chief and two FF/pump operators); a lieutenant was on the hydrant, couldn't see the building and one firefighter was on side "A," starting to pack up, to back the interior members up. The chief made the terribly difficult decision to leave the scene for three minutes to personally transport a non-breathing rescued child – there were no other resources available ... none. The hospital was a minute away. When he returned, the flashover had already occurred with only the lieutenant and the one firefighter left outside. A/C Dave McNally, FF Jason Bitting, and FF Nate Tuck perished in that duplex. RIP.
One of the best quotes I have ever heard came from KFD's Chief Mark Wessell (Ret.), a good friend who has shown true leadership in taking the KFD forward – I don't know anyone who doesn't agree with that. Since that fire, Mark and I have become pretty close and I am continually in awe over how he has made it clear that his FD will and has changed. Mark makes it clear that as horrible as this was, he did whatever he had to, to make sure it never happens again. To all of us, he made a statement that sums it up; "Always remember that we as firefighters are there to help people with a problem, while also doing all that we can to never become part of that problem."
There are several excellent reports out on the fire.
West Webster, New York
It could have been any firefighter, at any FD. It was a call on Christmas eve for a car fire, the sort of routine job that all of us turn out for regularly. But this time – once again in our history – it was a trap. There was a house and a car burning on arrival and they did what any firefighter would do: go to work. What was initially un-size-up-able was a waiting psycho killer who had positioned his cowardly self as a sniper on a berm above the unknowing firefighters.
Before they could begin to hit the fire, the firefighters were met by blasts of gunfire. Four were hit by the bullets and two were murdered. Radio traffic demonstrates amazing heroism by surviving WW FFs (see below).
The two firefighters killed in the line of duty were Michael J. Chiapperini, 43, a local police lieutenant, and Tomasz Kaczowka, 19, a 911 dispatcher for Monroe County. The two wounded firefighters, Theodore Scardino and Joseph Hofstetter, fortunately survived.
When a firefighter dies in the line of duty, the least any of us can do is to learn from what happened. And while this incident was as unpredictable as any, what Mike Chiapperini and Tomasz Kaczowka did, along with the WWFD officers and members, through their sacrifice is greatly heighten the awareness and education for firefighters everywhere on the potential and preparedness training related to active shooter incidents. As we approach another year anniversary, we remember the late Mike Chiapperini, Tomasz Kaczowka, their family, friends and the officers and members of the West Webster FD. RIP.
- Webinar related to active shooter incidents, featuring a West Webster Fire officer
- Radio traffic (Listen as the injured firefighters, Joseph Hofstetter, who is also a career firefighter with the Rochester FD, and Theodore Scardino, are incredibly in control on the radio, despite their serious wounds, as they provide updates, protecting other FFs, EMTs and police officers – saving more lives).
A firefighter from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection was killed Dec. 14, 2017, fighting the Thomas Fire, Fire Engineer Cory Iverson, a 32-year-old who had been with Cal Fire for eight years. Iverson's wife, Ashley, was pregnant, and they have a now three year-old daughter. He died from burns and smoke inhalation.
All of the above information – and plenty from many other resources and websites as well – provides each of us with an opportunity to share:
- So younger firefighters understand our history.
- So we all are reminded of the losses.
- So we learn from the lessons learned.
- And so we can honor all firefighters who gave their lives in the line of duty.
Take care. Be careful. Pass it on.