THREE DAYS IN FEBRUARY 1968 - MULTIPLE ALARM FIRES
THREE DAYS IN FEBRUARY 1968 - MULTIPLE ALARM FIRES
Author's note: This story is very personal to me. I learned so much in a short time span that many would find hard to believe, but I did. As a young volunteer firefighter at seventeen-years-old, a member of Company 32 (Linthicum) for a little less than a year, I was astonished. I was thinking at the time; all of these fires; all these multi-alarms. Did this happen every year or are we just going through a craze?
It had been somewhat slow since I joined the company in late March of 1967. I had been the nozzleman on a couple of working structure and auto fires, attended and participated in company drills, however had no formal basic training. I had no idea that fires and the complexities of fire ground operations, along with the relationships and interactions between personnel to make things work would all have so much impact on me then, and throughout my future career. I hope you enjoy this article as much as I had writing and living it.
AS OF THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 15, 1968, the fire service had been busy in the northern and western areas of Anne Arundel County, MD, particularly in the Brooklyn-Linthicum-Jessup sections.
From Monday, February 12, until Sunday, February 18, AACo.FD Fire Alarm would record 310 fires. It was quite a jump when you consider for the entire month of February 1967 only 308 fires were recorded.
High winds and dry weather throughout the week had contributed to the fires which would consume over 500 acres of winter-brittle brush and woods along with several buildings.
Chief William H. Johnson, chief of the division of forest fire control of the Maryland department of forest and parks, said, “At least six to eight inches of snow or an inch of rainfall is required to alleviate the hazardous conditions.”
There had only been one light snowfall and that had been during the first week of February. Firefighters throughout the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan region were also very busy with numerous other fires.
In the very early hours of a cold and breezy Thursday, February 15, the beginning of the three-day rash of fires, kicked off with a reported dwelling fire located on Mapledale Avenue south of Broadview Boulevard. Mapledale Avenue was the borderline between Company 32 (Linthicum) and Company 34’s (Ferndale) First Due response areas.
(Mapledale Road Dwelling Fire - Two Alarms - Photo - Maryland Gazette. Credit to the photographer)
AACo.FD Engineman Melvin Morrison, "C" Shift, arrived on the scene "driver-only" with Engine 321 to find the one-and-a-half-story wood frame dwelling well involved. Morrison had his hands full and immediately requested a second alarm. It would be one of many additional alarms that he would request on this day.
(Company 32's "Workhorse" Engine 321, a Ford C-850/American, 750 gpm with a 600 gallon water tank - Photo - Atkinson)
Later that morning, around 11 A.M., on a second-floor-level hall corridor of Andover High School in Linthicum, I was putting books in my locker from my earlier classes and retrieving books for the next two. Steve Preslipsky, a volunteer with Company #33 (Glen Burnie) approached me and said, “Do you feel like getting out of here?”
Preslipsky never had to twist my arm to cut classes. Although I liked school, there were other places that I would rather be. I said, “Let's go,” and I tossed “all” my books into the locker and the two of us snuck out of the building to his little white Ford Mustang parked in the lot in front of the school's industrial shops. It wasn’t the first time we did this and unfortunately for me, it wouldn’t be the last.
(Steve Preslipsky (in turnout coat) talking with then AACoFD District 1 Captain Harry Zlotowski at a fire on Crain Highway, Glen Burnie, Circa 1970. Credit to the photographer)
As we drove out of the parking lot to Andover Road, we were faced with a dilemma. We couldn’t go to Company 32 because Chief Raymond Smith would, no doubt, find out that I hooked school and I would be suspended from the company.
Same for Preslipsky, if we went to Company 33, Chief John Corcoran would suspend him also. So where do two north county volunteer firefighters go in the hopes of responding to a couple of fires where no-body would squeal on them? You would go to Company 34 – Ferndale – that’s what you did.
The good thing about Company 34 is that Preslipsky had been a volunteer there since 1966. It was only recently (November 1967) that he left to join up at Company #33. He knew the lay of the land and he knew the station’s enginemen.
On that morning “A” Shift was working and Engineman Willie Hubers was on duty at 34. It was the first time I had ever met Hubers.
Preslipsky convinced him that we were legitimately out of school for the day and he either bought it, or he went along with it to have some company. Hubers said we could stay, but we had to sweep out the engine bays. And besides, the engineman was busy baking a cake.
“Baking a cake,” I responded to Steve when we went out to the bays to do the floors. I said,
“My enginemen at 32 wouldn’t be caught dead baking a cake.”
“He bakes cakes all the time for his wife.”
Anyhow, we opened the bay doors and Preslipsky started up the Wards, E-341 and E-343 and the closed-cab Diamond “T” E-342 and pulled them outside.
I was envious of him since I didn’t know how to drive the engines, let alone start them. I think I may have pulled out the ambulance and the Hahn, E-345, stayed parked in the far bay on the east side of the station.
Once all of the apparatus was pulled out on the front ramp, Preslipsky closed the bay doors. It was a sunny but cold breezy day and leaves were blowing into the bays. I remember hearing the metal halyards clinging from the wind gusts on the flagpole outside of the station.
No sooner had we started sweeping up the green-oily-saw dust that Hubers had dumped on the engine bay floors, Fire Alarm toned out and alerted Company 31 for a brush fire on Park Place off of Hoffman Avenue in Pumphrey. About three-minutes later after arriving on location, Volunteer Lieutenant Dave Bond, on E-312, requested the full box assignment.
Companies 32 and 34 were dispatched. Since Hubers was busy cooking his cakes, an older active volunteer relief-driver named Shirl Bryant, hopped in the driver's seat of E-342 as Preslipsky and I scurried for turnout gear that would fit hanging on the wall.
(Volunteer Firefighter/driver Shirt Bryant at the wheel of one of Ferndale's Ward La France engines. Circa early '60s. Credit to the photographer. Courtesy Joseph MacDonald)
I found a “Ferndale VFD” aluminum non-painted helmet that just barely fit over my big head, a pair of boots that were way too small and a tight bunker coat that I could barely buckle.
Preslipsky, knowing just where to go to find fitting gear, slipped into the officer's seat of the cab and with me, in my tight-fitting equipment riding all alone on the tailboard of the old Diamond “T” engine, we headed for Brooklyn.
(Engine 342, 1946 Diamond "T" Oren, 500 gpm/500 gal. water tank - photo - Ted Heinbuch)
Now I was worried. All I could think about was that Chief Smith would be at the fire, and if he spotted me out of school, my butt would be cooked!
In 1968 the one-story Bon-Fire Restaurant, located at the northeast side of the intersection of Belle Grove Road and Baltimore-Annapolis Blvd., (B&A) was only about one-third the size of the Rose Restaurant (vacant) that is located at the site today. Today’s attached multi-level Comfort Inn had yet to be built.
Behind the Bon-Fire Restaurant was a gravel parking lot with some dumpsters with a field and woods that sloped up a large hill to the rear of the houses on Park Place.
A brush fire that started in the woods behind the popular truck driver's restaurant, with the help of a 27 mph wind, raced up the hill and a number of sheds, chicken coops, piles of discarded wood, fence and other outbuildings were now burning or in the path of the approaching fire.
Due to the size of the fire, the wind and the many homes exposed, Engine -312 smartly requested a second-alarm as our Diamond “T” E-342 crested the B&A bridge over the I-695 Beltway – we could see the smoke.
On Park Place, with the engine positioned behind E-321, Preslipsky and I pulled and placed a booster line in-service to work one of the fires. Before long someone grabbed me and I had to help pull a supply line back to a hydrant, advance additional attack lines and help other crews working adjacent fires.
After about 20 minutes the fire was under control and most of the 2nd Alarm companies were placed back in-service. Volunteer Firefighter Doug Shanks, Company #32 (off duty from BCFD Truck #18) was harassing me about arriving “On the wrong wagon and wearing the wrong gear.” So to appease him, I helped Shanks and Engineman Ron Biermann and others place Engine 321 back in-service.
While we were fighting the fire and cleaning up, radio traffic was picking up on the department’s radio operation's channel 2. There were other fires going on. We could hear one of Company 33’s (Glen Burnie) engines calling for help for a brush fire burning on Queenstown Road.
Minutes later we heard,
“Engine 341 out of service (responding) to trucks on fire at Sach’s Junkyard on West Nursery Road.”
“That’s Hubers, he’s by himself.”
(Ferndale's Engine 341)
As Steve and I continued to wet down some hot spots, we could see, from our location, a column of dark smoke pluming up from the vicinity of Sach’s junkyard.
When E-341 arrived at the junkyard, Hubers was faced with a number of junk trucks burning and the wind was blowing the flames toward the huge wood-frame barn-like-structure that housed a repair shop and office.
The building was located about two hundred feet in on the south side of West Nursery Road just east of the B-W Parkway. Hubers called for the full box assignment.
Hearing this on his home radio monitor, Melvin Morrison, Volunteer Captain with Company 32, still fatigued from being up half-of-the night with the fire on Mapledale, drove to the station.
Morrison responded with the station chief’s car (326) to Sach's located on West Nursery Road to see if he could make a difference in what sounded like a very challenging fire situation developing at the junkyard.
Bond, Shanks, Biermann, Preslipsky and I were just finishing putting the last section of hose back on to E-321 when we heard Hubers screaming on the radio. Apparently, fire alarm wanted to confirm his request for the additional apparatus and every time Hubers tried to contact fire alarm he was cut off by other radio transmissions.
No doubt, he had placed a hose line in service to protect the “barn” as well as the engine and every time he tried to fight the fire (by himself) he was interrupted by the requests being made from the fire alarm operators.
Finally, a frustrated Hubers had enough, and said something like,
“If you don’t send me the equipment I need, we are going to lose a couple of God Damn barns!”
There was silence on all the fire grounds. No one transmitted. Everyone was listening to what would happen next.
Profanity was never permitted on the radio.
Bond, who was an A.A.Co.FD fire alarm operator off-duty, finally broke the silence among the crews and said,
“Oh boy, Willie’s going to have to answer for that.”
Then we heard,
“Car 326 to headquarters”- it was the voice of Morrison.
Fire alarm acknowledged,
“Car 326 to headquarters, I'm now command post at Sach's. Dispatch six engines to my location at the West Nursery Road bridge over the Baltimore-Washington Parkway."
Now the silence on channel #2 ended and engines that were on the street started going in service (available). It would be said later that Fire Alarm Operator Donny Cole working channel 2 in the alarm center in the basement of fire headquarters in Millersville, spun around in his chair and said,
“Where in the hell am I going to get six engines?”
They would be in addition to the full box assignment that E-341 had requested previously for a total of nine!
There were a number of engines on the street, many were returning from the fire in Pumphrey and the fire on Queenstown Road was winding down. Plus additional engines were currently transferring to north county fire stations. Fire alarm started picking them up on the radio and dispatched them to the junkyard fire.
Morrison was a smart officer and an experienced engineman. He knew that the closest fire hydrant to the fire was at the corner of West Nursery and Winterson roads about a mile southwest of the fire. He requested the Friendship Airport Fire Department’s 5,000-gallon tractor-trailer tanker, which was quickly dispatched.
He knew with the large capacity tanker and a couple of engines supplying it, running shuttles to hydrants near Hammonds Ferry and Nursery roads, would buy him the necessary time to set up one of the longest engine-to-engine-relays in the history of the Anne Arundel County fire service up to that time.
The longest relay was in January 1967, along Dorsey Road from a hydrant (near where the driving range is located today) to the intersection of Telegraph Road to battle the Four-Alarm Sierra Package Good Store, Bar and Restaurant Fire (where Cancun Catina is presently located ). The relay was about a mile-and-one-half long.
(Note - The 2nd longest relay would be set up during the Wayson's Tobacco Warehouse fire in April 1985 - from the fire to the Patuxent River. It was about a tad over a mile. The relay supplying the Sach's Junk Yard Fire was just short of a mile)
Morrison, figuring he needed at least 6,000 feet of hose and many engines at the time carried at least a 1,000 feet of 2 ½” supply line or split hose beds filled with 1,000 feet each, could cover the one-mile-distance to the fire hydrant with the six engines.
Now standing on top of the hill behind Park Place and checking for hot spots, we could see that the column of smoke from the junkyard was getting larger and darker. The sound of sirens and air horns in the air was unlike anything I had ever heard since the burning of the Arundel Park, 12-years earlier.
From our high elevation, we had a clear view of the B&A Boulevard, Belle Grove and Camp Meade roads intersection. Within a five-minute period, an engine responding south on Belle Grove Road drove through the intersection to south Camp Meade Road.
Two more engines responded north on B&A Boulevard, one made a left turn to go south on Camp Meade the second continued north on B&A towards Nursery Road. Another engine driving south on Belle Grove Road made a right to go north on B&A. An engine traveling north on Camp Meade Road made a left onto B&A north. - so on and so forth.
Engines were passing each other going in different directions all responding to the same fire. From our lofty vantage point, the scene of the responding engines going every which way seemed quite comical.
But they all eventually arrived on West Nursery Road and per Morrison’s instructions took their places in the lengthy relay from the fire west to Winterson Road.
(Photo of E-181, (Marley - Ward La France) located on West Nursery Road near Winterson Road pumping to possibly E-292 (Jessup - International) on top of the hill in the relay from Maryland Gazette – credit to Rudiger Photo)
To this day, I don’t know how Morrison actually put it all together but he did and he did it single-handedly. More alarms were requested and before long engines were pumping the needed water through a triple-set of supply lines approximately a mile long to the fire.
After returning to Company 34’s station, cleaning the Diamond “T” Engine 342, and getting out of the tight boots to give my aching feet a break, Steve Preslipski drove me back to Company 32. It was about 3:30 P.M. and school was out for the day, so I would be safe from any further trouble with not being in school.
No sooner than I sat down in a comfortable leather chair in the station’s day room to watch “The Dating Game,” with Engineman Ron Biermann and others, fire alarm alerted the station to respond for a fire of undetermined nature on River Road, west of West Nursery Road.
We responded in E-321, Biermann was driving and Volunteer Lieutenant Bob Pryor (off duty BCoFD firefighter E-5) was riding OIC. I was riding in the jump seat behind the cab appreciating the wonderful feeling of wearing my very own boots, coat and helmet – what a relief.
When we arrived on River Road, there was a haze of smoke floating from the heavy tree line over the road. It was smoke from the junkyard blaze that was now under control, but with hours of overhaul left to perform.
Back at the station around 5:30 P.M., I called home to let my mom know I was okay and started thinking about walking down to “Mikes” sub shop to get a sandwich.
It was then that Volunteer Firefighter Harry Stone (off duty from BCFD E-47) pulled up on the station’s Benton Avenue side ramp with Car 326 and ordered about four or five of us to get our gear. We were going to the junkyard fire to relieve some tired firefighters.
As Stone drove us to West Nursery Road, it was now dark and there were what seemed to be a hundreds of rotating red and white beacon rays from the fire apparatus, utility vehicles and police cars, parked and operating up and down and all along West Nursery Road.
The fire ground and work areas around the engines were illuminated by numerous Circle “D” lights, some still mounted on the apparatus, others set up on the ground. Police had set up bright red burning phosphorus flares all over the road to manage traffic and deter roaming sight-see-ers from getting in the way.
(Alarmers's Bus/Canteen Wagon)
Harry Stone stopped the car a short distance from the AACo. Alarmers canteen wagon now set up on the West Nursery Road bridge above the B-W Parkway. Stone lit up a half-burned cigar and told us to go over to the Alarmer’s wagon to get some food and hot coffee because it was going to be a long cold night – there was ice everywhere.
“Food!” Music to my young ears, I was starving, but I couldn’t wait to get into the fight, there were still flames to put out. With all of the activity being conducted around the Alarmer’s wagon, I noticed Melvin Morrison talking with some chiefs and other officer’s near-by. I wolfed down a baloney, cheese and mustard sandwich, pushed a powdered cream puff pastry into my big mouth and washed it all down with a coke in a paper cup when I noticed a tug on my arm. It was Morrison.
Melvin Morrison was twenty-six years old. He was married to Joyce and they had two little boys. They lived in an apartment on the 2nd floor of Joyce’s mother’s house on the west side of Camp Meade Road a stone’s throw south of Tauber’s service station. A few houses south, on the same side of the road lived neighbor and fire department member Raymond Smith and his family.
In 1968 Morrison had a little over ten years experience as a volunteer firefighter and five years under his belt as an AACo.FD engineman. He was smart, confident, kind and considerate, committed to the fire service and his family, and had a great sense of humor.
Melvin was very clever in how he would respond to people along with his common sense approach to fire fighting and with everyday life situations. To me, he always made things seem easy like: “Why didn’t I think of that.” He was also good with his hands, a craftsman in wood and sheet metal. Morrison along with A.A.Co.FD enginemen, Tom German and Virgil Buttrun would soon form “BGM” Construction Company.
I had the greatest respect for Melvin Morrison and I would have follow him with a hose line through the gates of hell if need be. Even at the young age of 17, I realized that if I could grow up and be half the man he was, I would consider myself a success.
Now tugging my turnout coat was my “idol” covered head to toe with black soot. He had a smile on his face and a new portable radio hanging out of his pocket. The white “LHFD” leather captain’s badge on his helmet was stained black.
I don’t know why he picked me out of the crowd, but it made me proud that he did. At that point in time, I couldn’t think of anywhere I would rather be than to be walking by Morrison’s side throughout the busy fire ground.
He walked me over to E-291 (Jessup's-Ford), which was set up pumping in the middle of West Nursery Road. E-291 was one of the last engines in the one-mile relay that originated at the fire hydrant on Winterson Road.
E-291 was supplying water to E-341 and some other engines on the actual fire ground. There was hose looped and tangled like spaghetti everywhere. At E-291, AACo.FD Engineman Paul Porta was relieving Engineman George “Sonny” Vincent from Sonny’s day work shift.
Morrison pointed to Company 29’s barking Dalmatian “mascot” chained to the open jump seat behind the cab. The dog was no longer a Dalmatian; his spots were gone – the animal was covered with black soot.
Morrison told me during the height of the fire the smoke was so black and thick he had to crawl on his knees to communicate with crews from the engines. He said the barking dog was like a foghorn in the dark night and provided him direction to the engine to converse with Vincent from time to time regarding pump pressure and water flow volume.
Then Morrison led me down to the fire ground as a foul petroleum-rubber based smell and haze permeated the frigid air. There was activity going on everywhere. I saw Willie Hubers standing next to the soot covered E-341 located near the main building that was saved.
It was here that Hubers’ made his mighty stand against the fast moving fire earlier that day. He had on a turnout coat with the hood of his red sweatshirt extending from beneath the coat covering his head.
Hubers was pumping a number of supply lines feeding out from his discharges. These 2 l/2” lines, downstream, would be “gated wye” down to 1½” attack lines. There were at least a half-a-dozen or more of these attack lines being used by crews consisting of four to six firefighters each. The crews used the pressure from the fog nozzles to tear through truck wreckage, debris and burning rubber tires that were very difficult to extinguish.
As we walked, Morrison explained the entire operation as to how and why the hose lines were set up in the fashion that was laid out before us. Tires were the big problem in fighting this type of fire and hundreds were lying about haphazardly on the ground and mounted to trucks.
Some tires were lodged halfway in the ground intertwined with dry and dead vegetation. Many were located in piles beneath old steel truck frames. Other scattered tires, some still attached to metal rims, were decades old and their hodgepodge arrangement made it easy for the fire to spread.
Once a rubber tire burns completely, the supporting metal wire that once reinforced the tread is exposed in a coiled, slinky like fashion. Little piles of the wiry jumble were all over the fire ground causing firefighters to trip as their boots would become tangled in it.
We walked over to a crew who was experiencing problems extinguishing the burning tires. Morrison showed them how to pull each tire out with the long handled “pike pole” tools and individually position each tire upright.
While one or two firefighters stabilizing the tire, the nozzle person actually has to apply water at a very low pressure and flow the water over the burning rubber. Otherwise a typical nozzle stream would just bounce off. I took in every little detail. (We would learn years later to use foam in these situations.)
As Morrison was summoned back to the command post, I asked him if I could work with a crew from Company 13 (Riviera Beach) that was working on a burning “box” truck deep in the yard which consisted of acre upon acre of old and dilapidated used trucks. Morrison said, “Fine.” And I backed up the last man in on the hose line.
As a rookie firefighter, especially in the days of “Freelancing” before “Incident Command” and “Accountability,” you just did what you felt needed to be done – it was good and not so good. Seldom did you work and stay in crews. There was little accountability.
If you wanted to be where the action was you just worked your way to it. By getting on a hose line as a back-up you would eventually work your way up to the nozzle man’s position. With the Riviera Beach VFD crew, I eventually worked my way to the back-up position, but this particular firefighter was not going to give up the nozzle. So after about 30 minutes, I relinquished my position to another rookie and found a hose line crew that had less firefighters.
About two hours after my arrival, I finally worked my way to the nozzle. Now I was finally in my “glory” even though I was just wetting down smoldering debris, hot steaming tires, steel frames and burned out truck cabs. The great feeling and experience lasted for what seemed like five minutes until there was a tug on my turnout coat. It was Morrison, who said, “Shut it down Joe, we’re packing up and going home.”
What was unusual about the Sach’s Junkyard fire was the number of companies in the operation that had multiple engines at the fire. I remember 18 (Marley), 33 (Glen Burnie), 15 Powhaten Beach, 12 (Earleigh Hgts), 13 (Rivera Beach) and 17 (Arnold) all had responded with two or more engines.
I do not recall, Company 32 having any engines there. Possibly later a crew responded with E-322 (mack), but I’m not sure. E-320 (1,000 gal tanker Ford) was frequently out of service and the engine may have been at Culbert’s Fire Apparatus Company in College Park on the day of the fire.
There seemed to always be a problem with the Engine 320's electrical system “rectifier.” On many calls the siren would just stop or burn out and the engineman only had his “air horn” to move vehicles off the road during fire responses. The following morning E-320 would somehow be placed back in-service, but in 24 hours it would be out of service again.
FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 16, 1968, started out like most days, with my dad dropping me off in front of the Company 32 fire station on his way to work. I would have coffee with the on duty and off going engineman in the second floor kitchen until it was time to walk the mile or so to Andover High School.
However on this morning, there would be no coffee. There was already activity going on in the station’s rear engine bay. Engineman Tom German and a “new” guy in a gray engineman’s work uniform were washing dirty hose from the junkyard fire.
The new guy’s name was Gilbert Dicus. He was recently hired as an engineman for the new soon to be open Maryland City Fire Station in the Anne Arundel County section of Laurel. Headquarters sent him to Company 32 to help out. Dicus was eventually assigned to “C” shift and teamed up with Morrison for pump and driver’s training. He worked with Morrison for a couple weeks before he was sent to Maryland City.
Other than that, Friday was non-eventful, except for the big Friday night card game at the station. Every Friday night a hot poker game was always in play on the second floor in the rec room under a shaded light that hung over a round card table and chairs near the soda/snack vending machines.
The games usually started around 7 P.M. and would last until the early hours of the morning. Routine card players were Charlie Wright (Company 32 Treasure), Dan Betz (32 Volunteer firefighter), Al Parlett (32 President and past chief), Kenny Wiles (19’s [Cape Saint Clare]) Fire Chief and a few others. There was always a pile of dollar bills and coins on the table.
On this particular night there was a guy I had never seen before. He had a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, a visor on his forehead, straps to keep his shirt sleeves cuffed half-way up his arm and was dealing cards with the finesse of a dealer on a Mississippi River Boat. I would find out later that his name was Donald Smith, a county engineman and the Chief of Company 12 (Earleigh Heights).
At about 9 P.M. the station tones opened up and Company 32 was alerted to respond a tanker (E-320) to a vacant dwelling fire somewhere in Company 28’s (Odenton) area in Severn. The station was packed with volunteer members that night and the positions on the engine filled up quickly.
For one of the few times in my volunteer career, I was bumped from the tailboard by a senior member and had to give up my position. A volunteer driver or maybe rookie engineman Gilbert Dicus drove out the door with a full crew on E-320. I remember it was “B” Shift and Engineman Tom German stayed back.
Sometime after midnight, while we were in bed, the card game was in full swing and E-320 and crew were still out on the fire, the station tones opened up. Fire Alarm dispatched us for a brush fire in the median strip of the B&W Parkway along the south side of the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks.
E-321 responded, with Tom German driving, Chief Ken Wiles, (who ran out to the parking lot and retrieved his gear from his car), rode OIC and volunteer firefighter Walt Tydings and I rode in the engine’s jump seat behind the cab. It was very cold.
When German pulled the engine over to the parkway's northbound lane shoulder near the median strip and parked E-321, we could see the fire burning below the roadway bridge.
Not thinking and with my mind narrowly focused on going for the booster line nozzle, I leaped out of the officer’s side of the jump seat and landed steadfast and instinctively froze still at the edge of the roadway as a northbound Greyhound bus blasted by within an inch or two of my nose.
It was one of the scariest moments of my entire life. Tydings who was behind me saw the whole thing. He said, “Ross are you alright?” I was in a stupor, scared and stepped backwards toward the engine.
Tydings grabbed my turnout coat, shook me and said, “That was close!” The two of us pulled the booster line down over the hill and extinguished what was a small fire. But I never forgot the close brush with the speeding bus that could have resulted in certain death.
When I went back to bed, I prayed and prayed that I would never perform so carelessly again and thanked my guardian angle over and over until I fell fast asleep.
On SATURDAY MORNING, FEBRUARY 17, 1968, I woke up early and quickly walked down to “Keller’s” bakery for a bag of donuts. It was “C” Shift and when I came back, I had coffee with Melvin Morrison in the little station kitchen. Before I knew it, a horn was blowing outside from a white mustang parked on Benton Avenue. It was Preslipsky. We were to go to the Anne Arundel Community College in Arnold to sit for the American College Testing (ACT) college entrance exams.
Around 11 A.M., we finished up our testing. As we walked to the parking lot, we noticed how cold, dry and windy it was. We figured it was going to be a busy brush fire day and did not waste any time returning to our respective fire stations.
By 12:30 P.M, I was sitting in a leather chair in Company 32’s day room. I had just finished a cold-cut-sub from Chucks Drive-In and I was watching an old Charlie Chan movie on the television with Volunteer Firefighter Gaylor Watts. Someone opened the side door to the parking lot and the fierce wind blew about a dozen leaves through the day room. You just knew something was going to happen, you just didn’t know when or where.
Around 1 P.M., Fire Alarm began dispatching companies for brush fires, one after the other. First there were the typical double local alarms going on with Company’s 18 (Marley) and 33 (Glen Burnie). Anytime there was a local alarm (brush, auto or dumpster fire) in any of the adjacent response phantom box areas that bordered 18 and 33, the companies had it set up where each station responded one piece – double locals.
Most companies only responded one engine to a local alarm, accompanied by a jeep or a brush truck if it was brush. Many referred to the “double locals” as an “I’ll call you, if you call me box.” Company 32 would run double locals with Company 29 along Dorsey Road from Harmans to the Howard/Anne Arundel County line. Mainly because the Dorsey Road corridor was vastly over the typical first engine in response time.
As brush fires were breaking out in the usual sections of the county such as Point Pleasant, Marley Station Road, Jumpers Hole Road and Queenstown Road, it wasn’t long before Company 31 responded to a brush fire behind the Holy Cross Cemetery on Ritchie Highway. Most likely caused by a discarded lit cigarette, flicked out of a car window from some dim-wit driving along the Beltway. The cigarette set the hill of dry sagebrush on fire and the wind pushed the fire up the hill to behind the cemetery.
It must be remembered that in 1968 open burning was still permitted in Anne Arundel County. The open burning ban legislation would not be approved until later in 1971. People burned every day. They burned trash in their back yards, leaves in the street and cleared off land with fire. Brush fires were caused by unattended open burning as much as they were caused by discarded cigarettes and children playing with matches.
It wasn’t to long after arriving on location that E-312 called for a Jeep to assist. Company 32’s Jeep 324, was first due. Walter Tydings and jeep/rescue truck driver Charlie (CJ) Wright hustled to the back bays with their turnout gear to warm up the jeep, which was dispatched within the minute.
(Volunteer Firefighters' Sonny Harvey and Joseph Ross work with Jeep 324 on a brush fire off of Marley Neck Road in May, 1968 - Photo - Oxenham)
At around 1:15 P.M. Company 29 was toned out to respond to a barn and brush fire in Howard County. About 10 minutes later, Box 231 (29’s box – double local) was sounded for a brush fire at the Jeffery Farm on Dorsey Road, just west of Ridge Road. Companies 32 and 28 were dispatched.
Just before Engineman Melvin Morrison opened the driver’s door to the 56’ Mack, E-322, he opened the pump operator’s compartment and placed his helmet and boots inside and shut it. Then he stepped up on the side running board and shoved his turnout coat under the booster line reel, mounted on the driver’s side of the engine high behind the cab. He routinely did this whenever he drove E-322.
(Linthicum's 1956 "Big Mack," Engine 322, 1,000 gpm/500 gal.watertank. Photo - Atkinson)
As Morrison, positioned himself-in the driver’s seat, Volunteer Lieutenant Bob Pryor stepped up into the OIC’s (shotgun) position in the cab. Reverend Elwood Ulmer, Gaylor Watts, Sonny Harvey and myself, all in full turnout gear, were hanging on the tailboard waiting to go.
I remember seeing the smoke in the sky when the engine reached Rt. 170 and Dorsey Road. I was thinking it’s going to be one heck of a brush fire, however when we arrived near the driveway leading up to the farm on a hill on the north side of Dorsey Road, we were presented with an unexpected situation.
As Morrison slowed down E-322 to turn up the driveway to the farm, Sonny Harvey said, “That’s no brush fire that’s a barn burning.” The wind had pushed the brush fire to the barn and now the barn, fully involved, was blowing flames very close to the backside of a two-a-half-two-story wood frame dwelling house. The barn fire resembled a huge “blow torch.”
Morrison positioned the engine on the north side of the dwelling near some chicken coops, sheds and other out buildings. The burning barn was just southwest of the dwelling, with about 40 feet separating it from the house. Ulmer and Watts pulled one l ½ “ attack line and Harvey and I pulled the other.
As we pulled hose and approached the flaming barn, popping and sizzling sounds could be heard as the radiant heat from the fire cooked the exterior asbestos shingles on the back of the farm house creating little blisters that would burst and blow off. As the lines filled up with water, we tried to knock down the fire.
The wind continued to pick up speed. It would be later reported that wind gusts reached 55 mph.
I left my back-up position behind Harvey quickly to remove a kink in the line. With the driving wind and the high temperatures created from the fire, it was everything I could do to get back behind him. On the other line, Watts was operating the nozzle and kept ducking his head to momentarily escape the raging heat. I was afraid that his face was going to burn up-it was already red.
Within a minute-and-a-half the lines went limp and we could hear the engine’s motor running away from pumping air – we were out of water. The wind was blowing burning embers everywhere.
Pryor, after requesting a second alarm signaled to us to report to the rear of the engine. The engine’s canvas hose bed cover was steaming as residual water that had been lying dormant on top vaporized from the high heat. All of the out buildings on the side of the engine were now burning. As Morrison, stepped into the cab of the engine to back it out, he saw his turnout coat under the booster line burning. He pulled it out and tossed it to the ground.
We pulled the slack out of the attack lines and to the side so Morrison could back the engine out to a safer spot in front of the dwelling. As we did, Engines 283 and 333 arrived and gave us their water. The fire burned over us scorching the windshield of the engine.
(Odenton's Engine 283, 1957 FWD 750GPM/500GWT - Photo - Courtesy of Joseph MacDonald)
(Glen Burnie's Engine 333, a1962 GMC V4005/AMERICAN 750GPM/500GWT, shown here at the Ember's Restaurant Fire in October of 1971 Photo - Credit to the photographer, engine details, courtesy of Joseph MacDonald)
The field behind the chicken coops was burning and a wind driven wall of fire was moving swiftly to a heavy wooded area. It would eventually burn all the way to the Robin Hood Dell Trailer Park on Ridge Road about a-half-a-mile away. Pryor called for a third alarm and additional brush units.
Now we realized the roof of the dwelling was burning. Harvey and I removed the 35 foot extension ladder off of the side of the engine and raised it on the south side of the dwelling extending it to the roof. Harvey advanced the attack line up the ladder with me in tow. I remember it was everything I could do to keep my helmet from blowing off from the fierce wind.
With the help of a roof ladder (that someone had passed up to us) hooked into the peak, Harvey and I spent the next hour-and-a-half, chopping holes in the roof and sticking the charged hose line and nozzle into the holes (yes we actually did that) as there was a fire in the attic. We eventually put the fire out, but the roof looked like it was shot up by cannon balls in some civil war battle years ago. From all of the water we used, the entire second floor ceiling had collapsed on the floor below.
The roof was still smoldering in places. Member Doug Shanks joined me and instructed me in holding on to the roof ladder and using my boot covered foot to push square yards of smoldering tar paper and shingles off of the roof in two or three swipes. A truck tactic he no doubt learned from working at BCFD Truck #18 on North Avenue in the Walbrook section of Baltimore.
Up on the roof, I had a great view of the operation. A supply line was eventually laid back to Dorsey Road and engines shuttling water were pumping into it. (I don’t remember a tanker on location). I could see the brush units working on the brush fire to the north. What an exciting day.
Hours later after the fire was declared under control, we started to rack up hose, retrieve hand tools and other equipment that seemed to be tossed all over the yard, I kept feeling a stinging sensation on my wrist under the rubber fireball glove on my right hand. But due to the excitement, wind and cold, I kept forgetting about it.
Before we finished gathering our gear and placing E-322 back in service, I pulled my glove off and there on the top of my wrist was a second-degree burn - the blister a little larger than a silver dollar.
Apparently the cloth wristband on my glove became wet somehow and the radiant heat from the barn fire caused the burn. I showed Morrison, who looked at it and said, “Well Joe, you’re going to get out of all of this work.” 'We are sending you to the emergency room to get that thing cleaned up along with a tetanus shot.'
I was send back to the station in some other company’s utility truck. At the station, Chief Raymond Smith looked at my burn and summoned another volunteer to drive to me to North Arundel Hospital in his private vehicle.
In the hospital emergency room, as a doctor was checking out my injury, we heard all of this ruckus and activity as the double doors from the ambulance docking area burst open and a group of firefighters appeared pushing and pulling on gurneys strapped down with children and one screaming adult.
Volunteer firefighters John Miller, Donald Schultheis and others were wheeling in three injured children and their father as a result of a working dwelling fire in the Glen Burnie community of Sun Valley.
The crew still had their turnout gear on. Schulthies, with his yellow SCBA bottle still strapped to his back was holding an oxygen mask over the adult patient’s nose. Orderlies and nurses rushed out into the waiting room corridor to assist and start the necessary treatment.
Earlier at 6:15 P.M., a fire broke out in the kitchen of a one-story wood-frame dwelling, located at 7827 Old Annapolis Road. A 29-year-old Army captain and his four-year-old son were trapped in a bedroom. Three other children were trapped in another bedroom. The father, after he tossed the four-year-old out of a window to a waiting neighbor, was overcome by smoke and burns as he tried to rescue his other children.
Arriving crews from Company 18 and 33 rushed in and conducted a search and rescued all four victims. The Sun paper reported that Company 18 Assistant Chief and Engineman Harry H. Schreiber and crews consisting of volunteer firefighters Thomas C. Blankenship, John Miller, along with Company 33’s Volunteer Lieutenant Paul W. McGinnis and volunteer firefighter Donald Schulthies, “burst through the flames and carried the critically burned captain and the three children to safety.“ Companies 14 and 20 also responded to the fire, which was placed under control at 6:30 P.M.
Now sitting on a chair in the emergency room and watching all of the serious medical activity going on with the children, who were overcome from smoke and the critically injured man, my wrist burn didn’t seem so bad. As the captain screamed as a result of his severe burns, the doctor called my mother for permission to treat me and give me a tetanus shot.
When the doctor handed the phone over to me, my mom asked what was wrong with the little kid who was screaming in the background. I told her it wasn’t a little kid, it was an adult who was badly burned in a dwelling fire.
At the April meeting of the county’s volunteer firemen’s association, all of the firefighters who were involved with the rescue received commendations for their heroic efforts.
On Tuesday, February 20, a “C” shift, after school, I walked to see Dr. Shipley in his office located on Camp Meade Road, in the little two-and-a-half story brick home near the railroad tracks where the “Stavis” shopping center is located today. He checked out my wound, which was healing well, but wanted me to hold off on my volunteering for the next couple of days until it completely healed.
Back at the fire station, Engineman Melvin Morrison met with me in the boardroom and he conducted a one on one critique of the Jeffery Farm fire. He stated that the tactics we used were wrong. First he said that we wasted valuable water trying to fight the barn fire. The water would have been better used protecting the dwelling.
Morrison said that we handled the attic fire badly. He stressed the importance of opening up walls and ceilings to aggressively and directly attack the hidden fires from the interior not the exterior. Shoving charged hose lines through a hole in a roof or a floor is not going to do it. This was but just one of a number of ”best practices” he would instill in me as I worked up through the ranks as a volunteer and later as a career firefighter.
Thanks to Morrison, I learned that firefighting was more than just exciting manual activity; it was a science. Principles had to be learned and applied professionally and safely. There is no doubt that my skills and knowledge greatly improved as a result of Morrison’s mentoring.
(Engineman Willie Hubers carrying a hydrant fitting and hose back to his Engine 345 after a dwelling fire on Camp Meade Road, Linthicum, in late January 1968.)
The following weekend Division Chief David Mentzel, Fire Communications and Volunteer Assistant Chief of Company 32 drove me to fire headquarters. In the auditorium, I waxed his white painted county vehicle designated “Car 3.” On the weekends, I made extra money washing and waxing members’ cars.
The main reason Mentzel was at fire headquarters that Saturday was to have a meeting with Chief Harry Klasmeier and AACoFD Engineman Willie Hubers who was required to report. I don’t think Hubers was ever charged for his poor radio conduct on that trying day at Sach’s junkyard, but I think they wanted him to explain and to make sure it never happened again.
I’m glad the administration went easy on him. Nothing like that ever happened again with Hubers. He was a good guy and a competent engineman who always watched the backs of his firefighters and was a pleasure to work with. I would get to know Willie better as time moved on and I became more involved with the fire service.
The Jeffery Farm fire was a result of an unattended trash fire that was thought to be extinguished the day before. The family moved out of the house and into a trailer located on the property. The house was eventually torn down. However the families continued to live on the property and sell produce out of a little white building near the driveway off of Dorsey Road. They were still there when I was a career lieutenant assigned to Company #21 eight years later.
The Sun Valley fire was a result of an overheated appliance cord in the kitchen. That night the children were all released from the hospital after treatment. The captain was transferred to Kimbrough Army Hospital in Fort Meade in critical condition. He was listed in satisfactory condition later in the week.
Afterwards during my entire 34 year volunteer and career service, I would respond to many more serious and multi-alarm incidents especially on the weekends. However, never again would I experience three straight days of phenomenal action as I experienced in February 1968.
Copyright Joseph B. Ross Jr.
Joe I have just finished reading this story for the third time in the past two years. I have found this story to be most interesting since the first time I read it. I could start by crediting you with the exceptional mental images you created by your writing style. I could mention the way you were able to make the reader feel the adrenaline start stirring through their loins. They are both qualities which should be recognized. As for myself however …. the thing I was most impressed with is the way you were able to make the reader feel like they were part of the action. As if they themselves were part of the decision making aspects of your writing. Thank you Mr. Ross