Roadway signs dedicated to Howard County's five fallen firefighters

Since the foundation of Howard County’s first volunteer fire station in Ellicott City in 1888, only five county firefighters have been killed in action, according to retired Battalion Chief Don Howell. Two firemen with the Ellicott City Volunteer Fire Department died in the line of duty in December 1953, and three with the Lisbon Volunteer Fire Company died from injuries sustained in July 1969.

Retired and current county firefighters honored their colleagues’ sacrifice with plaques at both departments and, in October, erected roadway dedication signs in the volunteers’ names.

The project, called Line of Duty Death, was a collaborative effort between Howell, the county fire department and Howard County government.

“I was a volunteer at Ellicott City, starting in 1968, and I remember standing out in front of the station and leaning against the bronze plaque that was placed there to honor the two firefighters who died,” said Howell, 67, who retired in 1996.

Howell is currently an EMS instructor at the Applications and Research Laboratory school, with retired firefighter and paramedic Ken Brown, 63.

Capt. Charles Ditch, 44, and Lt. Joseph Stigler, 34, served with the Ellicott City department in the 1950s, while firefighters Robert Clary and Raymond Mills, both 23, and William Brightwell, 47, were with the Lisbon department in the 1960s.

On Christmas Eve 1953, Howell said, Ditch and Stigler were among the firefighters called to an 18-room house fire, which was ruled a total loss after flames were finally extinguished Christmas morning. As firefighters were clearing the scene, the home’s 45-foot brick chimney collapsed onto four volunteers, killing Ditch and Stigler.

Sixteen years later, on July 20, 1969, a severe thunderstorm rocked Western Howard County, as lightening struck a barn and created a fire in Cooksville. Clary, Mills and Brightwell were aboard Engine 43 that was driving to the area when the vehicle spun 180 degrees, struck a tree and threw the firefighters from the truck’s back step.

Clary and Mills were pronounced dead at the scene. Howell said Brightwell died from his injuries on July 8, 1972.

“When that incident happened, I was volunteering at the Ellicott City station,” Howell said. “I remember responding to another call, riding on the back step and I could hear the radio crackle that there had been some sort of accident with the Lisbon unit and they were requesting ambulances.”

Fire units from Mt. Airy and Sykesville responded to the accident, he said; Howell attended the two volunteers’ funerals that year as well as Brightwell’s funeral in 1972.

Portraits in uniform

Although he retired from the fire department in the mid-90s, Howell said he worked with first-responders as executive director of the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation, providing psychological and emotional support and stress management to those who serve.

In 2011, Howell said he wanted to go beyond the two remembrance plaques at the fire houses to honor the county’s five fallen firemen, whose families had no pictures of the volunteers in uniform. Howell shared ideas for digitally created portraits with an ARL graphic design teacher, who offered the project to then-senior Chelsea Allen.

“They had some old photographs of the firemen in black-and-white that were not the greatest quality,” said Allen, 24, a 2011 graduate of Hammond High School. “I used those photographs as reference to draw portraits. I scanned those drawings into the computer and then virtually painted them using Photoshop.”

The five men were dressed in civilian attire in the photos, but Allen said she drew them in their fire service uniforms, representing their stations and titles.

Four of the five portraits were completed that spring, she said, followed by Brightwell’s portrait in March 2017. Allen completed four portraits for a school project and was paid about $1,000 for the fifth portrait with funds from the Ellicott City fire station’s annual holiday train garden.

Retired Howard deputy fire chief Dave Balthis, 59, organizes the train garden event and currently works with the Maryland Institute for Emergency Medical Services Systems. He said the nonprofit donates its funds to worthy fire service-related projects.

“Firefighters will go in and do almost anything to get the job done,” Balthis said. “They were volunteer firefighters, which makes their contributions even more significant. They were doing it freely to support their community and their neighbors.”

Signs to remember

In October, the dedication signs were raised to bring additional awareness to the firefighters’ service in the community, Howell said. Signs with Ditch and Stigler’s names were placed in each direction on Old Columbia Pike near Brittany Drive in Ellicott City. Clary, Mills and Brightwell’s signs are on Old Frederick Road near Forsythe Road in Cooksville.

The signs are located where the firefighters responded to their last calls in the ’50s and ’60s.

Capt. Vincent Baker, of the fire department’s logistics division, said he helped coordinate the sign project, funded by the county for about $1,000.

“It has been a priority to recognize the people who gave the ultimate sacrifice when you serve your community and you don’t come home,” Baker said. “As the firefighters in the community, we want to recognize what these people gave for us, but also for the families of these people.”

On Nov. 16, Ditch’s daughter, Bev Ditch, 79, and Stigler’s younger sister, Teresa Stigler-Slade, 92, visited their family members’ sign down the road from the Ellicott City Volunteer Fire Department.

Ditch said she was an administrative services officer for the fire chief in Howard County, beginning in March 1978. She retired in 2005, but returned shortly after as part-time records manager at the training academy.

Sixty-four years ago this Christmas, Ditch said she still remembers watching the fire her father responded to from her grandmother’s bedroom window. The Ditch family lived on Hill Street, she said, and her father cut through people’s yards to get to the scene.

That night, rather than saying the usual, “See you later,” Ditch said her father left the house, saying, “Goodbye.”

“I was very proud of him because he was always out there to give service to somebody, anybody who needed it,” Ditch said.

A colleague of her father’s nicknamed him, “Buck,” she said. Since she was always with him at the fire department, they called her “Little Buck.” The fire department meant “everything” to Capt. Ditch, his daughter said.

This instilled her desire to join the department years later.

“I probably would’ve been a firefighter if they let women at the time, but they didn’t,” Ditch said. “This was an opportunity for me to get into the fire department and work with the men and women and I love them all dearly. When I go into a fire department or the training academy, it may sound strange, but I know Dad’s there. The feeling is I know he’s there.”

Stigler-Slade said her brother and his wife, Nancy, had two daughters, then ages 3 and 5, and a son, who was born the morning of Stigler’s death.

When Stigler’s mother answered the phone early that morning, Stigler-Slade said she was shocked and handed the phone to her daughter.

“I took all of the information and fell to my knees; it shocked me so much,” Stigler-Slade said.

Her brother was at the fire house since age 16 and officially joined with his mother’s consent when he was 18. The family even had a bell in their home that was connected to one at the department to alert him of any fires.

“His watch came off and his school ring came off and [he and other firefighters] ran up Main Street,” Stigler-Slade said.

The portraits and signs were “great and wonderful” ways to acknowledge those who lost their lives for the cause, she added.

Kittleman said he was proud to assist the fire department in honoring its fallen heroes.

“The sacrifices these five brave men made came long ago, but are not forgotten and never will be,” Kittleman said.

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