"Karl knew his skills well, from ladder man to heavy rescue - he was a strong, muscular man with a tremendous presence and a stature of dignity," said city Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers, who worked with him for 30 years. "Karl was a powerful man who knew his trade, but he was gentle. He was the kind of man who made life pleasurable. He even gave dignity to dying."
Two visibly shaken firefighters, Richard Caldwell and Emmett Ross, who were trained by and worked with Mr. Alexander at his last assignment as senior man at Engine 9, Ladder 21 in East Mount Airy, said in an interview Friday that he was the rarest of men.
"A piece of each of us died with him," Caldwell said.
"I'll never forget him - he taught me so much more than how to be a firefighter," Ross said.
Mr. Alexander filled his son, Karl, with wisdom and joy and entertained him with a taste for life.
He had a keen, analytical mind and, his son boasted, was the world's leading expert on military history, weapons, planes and cars. "He didn't have a college degree, but he was the best-read, most intelligent man I knew."
He had a fun side. "My father loved the Eagles - I mean, really loved the Eagles," said his daughter, Carmen Lennon. "When I moved to Texas and couldn't watch the games, I spent hours on the phone with him during an entire Eagles game while he described it play by play. He owned an Eagles-green pickup truck with an Eagles decal. He never let anyone else drive that truck. It was spotless. I was proud to be his daughter."
His wife of 13 years, Patricia, said he had the serenity of a man in quiet command. "We had our retirement planned out in full. He was going to buy a Jeep, and we were planning to drive it to ends of the Earth together," she said. "When he got sick, he always wanted me there. I slept in a chair next to his bed. The hardest part was watching him lose so much weight, but he never complained. He worried more about us."
In 1991, Mr. Alexander was fighting a four-alarm house fire in South Philadelphia. The heat was so intense, a fire truck and many cars were ablaze.
Mr. Alexander noticed a lieutenant's coat smoking in the heat. Then his shoulders felt strange. "I had a tingling on my skin, from the heat," he said in a 1993 interview. Moisture on his skin had become so hot, it severely scalded his shoulders and arms. He could not feel it because the nerve endings were destroyed. Back at the station, he was horrified when he removed his gear.
"When I took my shirt off, my skin just slid down my arm," he said. For the next two years, he was in and out of the hospital for painful skin grafts and treatment.
In 1995, Fire Fighters Local 22 sued the manufacturer of the bunker gear, saying that it did not meet safety standards to prevent scalding. A federal jury awarded nearly $1 million to 36 Philadelphia firefighters, most of it going to three men. Mr. Alexander was awarded $130,000, and two others were given about $300,000.
"Karl came back to work in the radio room wearing burn bandages for several years while he healed," said Brian McBride, president of Local 22 and a firefighter with him for 30 years. "His burns were bad, but he did not talk about the pain. Karl was a personal and quiet guy. He filled up a room with his presence, but there was a calmness about him."
Mr. Alexander had the exuberance of a man in full. "I worked with Karl at Ladder 3," said Capt. Mike Yeager, of Rescue 1. "He was a good man. When we started 30 years ago, it was just a job, but it became so much more. The camaraderie, seeing death together, learning skills, watching each other's backs."
Mr. Alexander worked in a tire plant after graduating from West Philadelphia High School in 1968. He married Gwendolyn Burns in 1972 and had a son before the marriage ended in the mid-1980s.
He joined the fire department in 1977 and worked first at Engine 2, Ladder 3 in North Philadelphia before being recruited to the elite Rescue 1, the heavy-rescue unit that is called upon for such emergencies as river and trench rescues, and fires in confined spaces.
After recovering from his burns, he moved to Engine 9, Ladder 21 until he retired in August.
In 1994, Mr. Alexander married Patricia Lennon, who brought her daughter, Carmen, to the marriage.
"Karl had a soft heart for animals. He rescued a mistreated Dalmatian who died three years ago. He loved that dog," his wife said. "It was so strange: When he died, his three cats, along with his family, came to his bed."
Mr. Alexander will be remembered as a perfectionist, said Caldwell. "When it was his turn to cook, he taught us how to build a perfect charcoal fire and the perfect way to grill bison burgers, steak and ribs."
"He came on strong until he got your attention while teaching firefighting skills. Then he was quiet and calm, and thorough," said Ross. "My first day on the job, I went on a medical-emergency call with him. I delivered a baby. He encouraged me and just watched."
In addition to his wife, son and daughter, he is survived by a granddaughter, three brothers and a sister.
A memorial service with Fire Department honors will be at 10 a.m. Saturday at Camphor United Methodist Church, 5620 Wyalusing Ave. Burial was private.
Donations may be made to the Widows Fund, 415 N. Fifth St., Philadelphia 19123.
Contact staff writer Gayle Ronan Sims at 215-854-4185 or firstname.lastname@example.org.