THERE WERE FIRES EVERYWHERE, SATURDAY, APRIL 20, 1963. CHAPTER 11
THERE WERE FIRES EVERYWHERE, SATURDAY, APRIL 20, 1963, by Joseph B. Ross Jr. (Copyright © 2022 by Joseph B. Ross Jr.)
Chapter 11 - Dorsey Road – Scouts Looked Like A Retreating Army
In 1963 there were only a few fire hydrants accessible to the Harmans-Dorsey-Hanover areas. There was a hydrant on Dorsey Road west of the B&O railroad tracks on the Howard County water system.
Seven miles to the east, a hydrant was located on the south side of Dorsey Road near the grounds of the old Barrett’s School for Girls facility.
A third hydrant was located on Camp Meade Road in front of the Westinghouse Corporation’s main building about 2 ¼ miles north of Dorsey Road.
These hydrants were used extensively during Saturday as engine after engine, brush trucks and jeeps continued to hook up and draw water and race back to the fires. German decided to drive north to the hydrant in front of Westinghouse.
Across from the Westinghouse complex running parallel to Camp Meade Road were the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks about 50 yards to the west.
In the 1960s, railroad rolling stock was still equipped with axle bearings located in a metal box above the train car’s trucks or wheels. The bearings were compressed with grease and/or oil coated combustible packing to reduce friction of the axle against the truck frame.
These boxes would become known as “hot boxes” when the packing dried up or the oil leaked out and the packing caught fire from the extreme heat caused by the built-up friction.
Sometimes the fire would spread to the floor boards of the train box car, setting the car on fire. But frequently sparks and burning embers would be thrown from the wheels and fires would start in the dry vegetation along rail road tracks.
There is little doubt that the Clay Banks, Jackson Grove and Montevideo roads and the earlier fire along the Pennsylvania railroad tracks west of the Westinghouse parking lot were all caused as a result of sparks and embers thrown from the hot boxes.
Turning from Dorsey Road onto Camp Meade Road and heading north, German could see small fires along the east side of the Pennsylvania railroad tracks.
German would later say, “There was one fire at about every 15 feet – no doubt the fires were started from a hot box on one of the trains."
There must have been at least a half-dozen fires and the wind was whipping them along.” German and Harvey raced with Jeep 324 to the Westinghouse fire hydrant.
Upon arriving, Ed Utz, an engineman with the Brooklyn VFD, Company 31 was filling Engine 311 from the hydrant and hurriedly dropped a hose line into Jeep 324’s tank.
With a filled tank, Jeep 324’s crew of two raced back to the fires on Camp Meade Road which now consisted of a wall of flame along the west side which was quickly jumping to the east side.
German radioed for help and Harvey tried to extinguish the flames with the jeep’s hose line but it was no use, the flames were too high and too concentrated.
The flames along the eastside had picked up and formed a quarter mile long head of flame that was now foraging on the dry brush and forest and racing east on airport property, north of Dorsey Road.
At the Boy Scout camp located on the airport property, activities were continuing despite the continuous sounds of sirens, helicopter fly-overs, the strong odor of smoke and the gusty winds.
Around 3 p.m., about a half-dozen scouts were in the woods approximately 50 yards west of the camp searching for fire wood. One scout noticed an orange-reddish glow low to the ground to the west and noted that it was a little early for a sunset.
Another scout climbed a tree and hollered out, “That’s no sunset, that’s a fire!” The climber quickly slid down the tree and the scouts took off and ran back to camp.
Scoutmaster Raymond Robley and assistant scoutmasters John Sikorski and Tom Jefferies were already mustering the scouts near the flagpole.
The wind was ferocious and what looked like a myriad of white, black, brown, yellowish-green and gray colors of smoke appeared and was now directly hovering high over the scouts.
Five to ten foot tall flames could now be seen in the woods traveling rapidly towards the camp. The scoutmasters ordered all of the scouts to form in their patrols and line up before the flag.
There was going to be a formal striking of the colors. Although a number of scouts thought the formality was wasting time, it was Robley’s way of calming down the excitement, accounting for all of the scouts, and preventing panic.
As the flag was being lowered and the fidgety scouts were trying to stand at attention, they could hear the crackling, snapping and pops as the extreme heat split the tree branches as the fire enveloped the trees’ trunks.
Seconds later and to the amazement of the scouts, the flames crowned through the tops of the trees parallel to the fire break – would it hold?
Once the flag was down and being folded “quickly” by the color guard, Robley ordered the scouts to break camp, get what they could and line up along the second fire break to the east and prepare to march out as one body.
Some scouts carefully unbuttoned the tops of the half-shelter tents, while others ripped them apart and hastily packed their belongings into their knap sacks.
Assistant Scoutmaster John Sirkorski was no “babe in the woods” when it came to dealing with the stress that accompanied the dicey position the troop was in.
The U.S. postal service mail carrier was a World War II veteran of the famous 29th Infantry Division who landed on Normandy Beach in France on D Day.
As on June 6, 1944, Sirkorski would again need to take bold action to survive the day and safely evacuate the scouts, which included two of his own sons and one each for scoutmaster’s Robley and Jefferies.
Another father who had been worried about his Boy Scout son was Air Force Captain George Martin in the C&P Airways helicopter. The captain and pilot worked the fires all day and now the fire became personal.
Would Martin’s 11 year-old son along with the rest of the scouts make it out alive? Looking down from the chopper at the little fire break between the scouts and the wall of flames, he wasn’t sure.
Smoke now filled the area as flames consumed the trees and Robley called out, “Let’s go everybody!” Simultaneously, with the scoutmaster’s order the C&P Airway’s helicopter that had been flying back and forth over the area throughout the day landed in a sage field east of the second fire break.
The captain stepped out and started waving at the scouts and pointed towards the old cemetery road to the east.
Flames now raced east along the tree line at the west edge of the fire break as Assistant Scoutmaster Tom Jefferies managed to get his car out in the nick of time. In another minute the car would have been burning. But more important, the vehicle was located on the fire break roadway and obstructing the orderly flow of the evacuation.
Robley and Sirkorski continued to usher and watch over the scouts as they evacuated down the fire break road towards the main roadway to the east.
Now many scouts seeing the flames close to the fire break broke ranks and started running through the sage field. Some discarded their knapsacks and bundled sleeping bags, while others managed to run and carry everything.
The helicopter lifted back off the ground and into the hovering smoke, while half of the scouts now sprinted through the sage towards the main road (Old Telegraph Road) and others ran along the fire break/roadway towards the same location.
Robley and Sirkorsky bravely stayed behind to make sure every scout made his way safely to the road.
As the tired and worn-out scouts arrived along the asphalt covered main road in a piecemeal fashion, a lone Jeep 324 with a crew of two appeared and raced up the road. One scout hollered out sarcastically, “Boy that’s going to be a lot of help!”
A minute later a parade of fire engines, led by Linthicum VFD, Company 32’s 1960 cab-forward Ford pumper, Engine 321, driven by Engineman Melvin Morrison raced towards a large white house that was located on grassy property on a hill to the west of the main road.
(Linthicum VFD, Company 32's Engine 321, 1962 Ford/American, pumper, 750 GPM/500 GWT. Photo - Atkinson)
The 30-50 foot high flames looked like they were minutes away from swallowing the house, when the last scout made his way out of harm’s way to the main road way.
Engine after engine, raced along the roadway towards the large house as the scouts, looking like a weary retreating army from a lost battle, walked along both sides of the roadway.
It was like the cavalry arrived. The scouts were now safe, but it was not certain if the house would be saved. Looking back towards the west where the camp was located was one raging mass of flames.
By the time the scouts gathered on a little island of grass in the north-east corner of Dorsey Road and Old Telegraph Road, at least 20 fire engines had turned on to Cemetery Road and made their way toward the threatened house.
More engines were on their way as they could be heard in the distance heading to the busy intersection now lined with police cars and cars filled with spectators. The engines and crews surrounded the house and played hose streams on the fire as well as the house.
The house was saved, but the fire continued to burn in a northeast direction and would finally come to rest along the edge of green grass just 200 feet from the airport’s major runway. Flames and smoke would remain in the area for hours.
(Flames from the south flank of the airport fire north of Dorsey Road. Photo - Courtesy of Jim Vecheck, photo taken by his father)
(Out of county fire engines, possibly from Prince Georges County, gather at the intersection of Hawkins Road and Dorsey Road to protect homes in the development of Timber Ridge. Photo - Courtesy of Jim Vecheck, photo taken by his father)
Engine 312 with Harry Zlotowski, OIC was dispatched to the airport fire from the Marley Neck Road fire. As they were responding to the airport other engines would pass Engine 312 going in the opposite direction responding to Marley Neck Road, the fire that they just came from.
It was all very crazy. Harry Zlotowski would later say, “It was an understandable mix up on a day where so much was happening over such a wide area.”