On their way to a rowhouse fire just before dawn Jan. 24, Baltimore firefighters Lt. Paul Butrim, Kenny Lacayo and Lt. Kelsey Sadler received the dispatch: Someone was trapped inside the building.
“They were told that somebody — some resident of West Baltimore that they had never met — was in danger of dying,” said Edward Kelly, general president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, during the firefighters’ funeral service Wednesday. “And they decided that somebody was worth dying for.”
All three firefighters died when that vacant rowhouse in Southwest Baltimore’s Mount Clare neighborhood collapsed with them inside. One other firefighter, John McMaster, was rescued quickly and hospitalized for several days with injuries he sustained during the blaze, which is among the deadliest for first responders in Baltimore history.
“Baltimore as a city is grieving the loss of the lives of three of the bravest among us,” Mayor Brandon Scott said. “Those who every day decided to get up and not just face the danger, but run headfirst into danger to save strangers.”
Nearly all members of the city fire department’s 1,400-person force, as well as thousands of other first responders from as far away as France, packed the joint memorial service at the Baltimore Convention Center. A series of ceremonies shut down streets and highways as the caskets of the firefighters, all of whom were in their 30s, were loaded onto three fire trucks that idled underneath an American flag.
As the fire engines crawled down Conway Street on the way to the burial at Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens in Timonium, firefighters, paramedics and emergency medical services personnel saluted silently — a “sea of blue” tribute.
The somber atmosphere Wednesday morning was occasionally punctured by the sound of ambulances staffed by fire departments from neighboring districts. Crews from other parts of the state and Washington, D.C., filled in to allow firefighters from the city to attend the funeral — the first time in the department’s history all of its units were out of service. City fire officials said neighboring companies provided mutual aid to at least two building fires Wednesday.
Baltimore City Fire Chief Niles Ford began his remarks by thanking the replacement firefighters.
”My goal, with our assistant chiefs, was to try to make sure that everyone who was working that day had an opportunity to come here and grieve in unity,” he said. “And I just want to thank all those individuals who came — all the firefighters, all the fire chiefs, all the elected officials who made it possible.”
Standing before an image of Baltimore’s skyline, Gov. Larry Hogan spoke tearfully before the assembled crowd, which filled a sprawling hall in the Convention Center.
“Just after 6 a.m. last Monday in the dark and the searing cold, when the call came in, Paul, Kelsey, Kenny — who were on shift that day — did what they had always done, what they were trained to do, what they loved to do,” Hogan said. “They said: ‘Send me.’”
Family members and friends came forward to eulogize the fallen, and after they spoke, slideshows of their photos were played to music.
Butrim, 37, a Harford County native, became a Baltimore City firefighter in 2006.
He always dreamed of joining Truck 23 in Pigtown, said his friend Josh Fannon, president of the Baltimore Fire Officers Union, IAFF Local 964.
A practical joker in the firehouse, Butrim once tricked a co-worker into wearing a pair of women’s underwear over his firefighting uniform, Fannon said.
He enjoyed watching the Boston Red Sox and NASCAR and camping with his wife and young son, Nolan, who died three years ago this month.
“Paul is keeping a watchful eye over all of us with Nolan at this side. Together at last,” Fannon said.
Lacayo, a 30-year-old Silver Spring native, joined the Baltimore Fire Department in 2014 as a firefighter and paramedic.
His fiancee, Clara Fenelon, remembered Lacayo as a gentle soul — the kind of man who wouldn’t let her open any doors, who always would check with her before taking an overtime shift.
“The protector, who forced me to drink water when what I really wanted was more tequila,” she said, to laughs from the crowd.
“I haven’t been back to our home yet,” Fenelon said, “where our wedding guest list still sits on top of my laptop.”
Sadler, a 15-year veteran of the department, joined after graduating high school in Harford County.
Her sister Lacey Marino recalled the 33-year-old as fiercely defiant and deeply loyal.
“That was our girl. Strong words, strong feelings and very strong hugs,” Marino said. “She was the best hugger. Hugged so strong you felt like she would bruise you.”
Sadler also loved taking photos. When her family went through her phone after her death, they realized just how much, her sister said.
“There were 4,957 pictures on there, and that was after a recent phone dump,” Marino said. “Remember to take the pictures. Buy the selfie stick. And be obnoxious about it.”
After the service, fire personnel flanked Conway Street to create the “sea of blue” that saluted Engine 55, where Lt. Butrim was posted, Engine 14, where Sadler and Lacayo were stationed, and another fire engine, which had its number marked with a black mourning stripe also worn over the badges of first responders.
A procession of at least 70 city fire trucks and ambulances wound through downtown Baltimore and up Interstate 83 to Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens. A large American flag tied to engine ladders flew above the procession on Charles Street.
“Today really is about [the victims] and their families and lifting them up and supporting them, giving them the hero send-off that they deserve,” Scott said.
The loss of Butrim, Lacayo and Sadler marks the first line of duty deaths for the Baltimore City Fire Department since 2014, when Lt. James Bethea died of smoke inhalation after falling through a floor at a vacant rowhouse.
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Last month’s deadly fire, which took place in the 200 block of S. Stricker St., is being investigated by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. A reward for a “person of interest” captured on video near the scene of the blaze before it took place ballooned to $100,000 last week with contributions from the state, localities and firefighters’ unions.
Fire personnel from near and far traveled to Baltimore to honor their fallen comrades, including from Chicago, Detroit, California, Canada and France.
Patrick Trudel, a battalion chief from Montreal, said his company traveled to Baltimore to embrace the city in love and support during its loss — a pain his department knows intimately. Pierre Lacroix, a Montreal firefighter, drowned in the line of duty during a water rescue in October, Trudel said.
“It’s our duty and responsibility to come here to Baltimore to support our brothers and sisters of the department,” Trudel said.
Jeffrey Chaney, a military veteran injured in combat, said Baltimore fire personnel recently helped him when his power scooter died and he had a seizure. Beyond taking him to the hospital, city fire personnel charged his scooter and fed his cat, he said.
”I would never miss this,” Chaney said outside the Convention Center. “This is the epitome of respect. Three people lost at one time for running into a burning building looking for people who might need help.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Billy Jean Louis contributed to this article.