Tragedy in South Carolina resonates in city firehouses

Posted: June 20, 2007

Because their work is so risky and dangerous, because the routine discharge of their duties requires so much death-defying physical courage, firefighters, like soldiers, are united by a special bond. The word often used to describe the intensity of that bond is brotherhood.

So news of the warehouse fire in Charleston, S.C., that killed nine of their brothers was keenly felt yesterday by the firefighters of Philadelphia.

"When something like this happens, it shoots across the country - pardon the expression - like wildfire," said Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers. "Everybody knows. We stop. We offer prayers to the families. The fire service is like a community, and we let them know we care about their fallen members."

The Philadelphia Fire Department comprises 2,400 active firefighters and paramedics. An additional 2,000 firefighters are retired. A tragedy of this magnitude haunted the thoughts of these men and women throughout the day.

"Every firefighter knows the risk when he answers the alarm, but that doesn't ease the pain when we lose one, let alone nine," said Brian McBride, president of Philadelphia Fire Fighters' Union, Local 22 of the International Association of Fire Fighters. "Our thoughts and prayers go out to them and their families."

At Engine Company 54 in Overbrook, firefighter Carey Wimberly, normally a cheerful, ebullient fellow, became somber when he spoke of what befell his comrades in Charleston.

"It's one of the last things a firefighter wants to hear - that another firefighter has fallen in the line of duty," Wimberly said. "The loss of a life is always a tragedy, but it's a double hit when it's one of our own."

"It's always a tragedy, but it does happen in this job, though not always of this magnitude," said fellow firefighter Joe Eckert, 23, who's been on the job for almost a year. "It comes with the territory."

Engine Company 54 was established 100 years ago and is housed in a classic brick firehouse on a wedge of land at 63d Street and Lancaster Avenue. Twenty men, in four platoons, are assigned to the firehouse, which consists of a medic unit and engine.

In a back corner of the engine room is a plaque in memory of Tracy Champion, 49, an Engine 54 member and 21-year veteran who collapsed at the scene of a fire in West Philadelphia in January 2006 - the last Philadelphia firefighter to die in the line of duty.

"It's a shame, but these things happen," said firefighter Anthony Squilla, 35. "It's a dangerous job that we do, a job that no one else wants to do, but if it were easy, it wouldn't be as rewarding."

Since Philadelphia's paid fire service began in 1871, 285 firefighters have died in the line of duty. Until 9/11, Philadelphia led the nation in line-of-duty deaths, McBride said. He recalled some of the conflagrations that claimed multiple lives: the One Meridian Plaza fire in 1991, which killed three firefighters; the Gulf Oil refinery fire in 1975, which killed eight; a fire at Berg Chemical Labs in 1954, which killed 10.

Commissioner Ayers, who knows the assistant chief in Charleston, said the department was preparing a letter of condolence. He and union chief McBride said they and a delegation from Philadelphia planned to attend a ceremony in honor of the fallen firefighters once arrangements were announced.

Already, firefighters are making their own plans to pay their respects, and the union intends to contribute to whatever fund is set up to help the victims' families, McBride said.

"We're pretty devastated," said Fire Capt. Robert Blanks, who was visiting Engine Company 54 yesterday in his supervisory capacity as acting chief of Battalion 11. "When one of our own goes down, it's a sudden reminder of how dangerous our job is. It brings it all home. We all suffer because we know how it feels."

No sooner had he said these words than the alarm sounded.

"That's us!" someone shouted. "We got to go."

The firefighters scrambled into their gear and jumped into their trucks. Hearts pounded. Pulses raced. Engines roared. Sirens wailed.

The fire, in a front bedroom of a house in the 5900 block of Haverford Avenue, was extinguished without injury or incident.

Sometimes the best analgesic for pain is duty, the best palliative for grief is action.

Articles from The Inquirer's archives chronicle some of the fires in which firefighters have died. Read them at

Contact staff writer Art Carey at 610-701-7623 or

comments powered by Disqus