Firefighters pay homage to a mild-mannered hero Career cut short by eye injury


They came to celebrate a firefighter's firefighter whose career ended way too soon.

More than 200 firefighters and their families delivered tributes to Keith "Bud" Gill, gave him gifts -- such as a cross-stitched replica of the fire station insignia -- and retired his badge number. A fellow fireman read a poem he wrote for his friend. It was all about heroism and tragedy.

Many gave thanks that they had come for a retirement party at the Hampstead Volunteer Fire Company on Friday night, instead of a memorial service for the 39-year-old Mr. Gill. He officially retired last month after losing an eye to an injury he suffered on duty in April 1991.

TC Mr. Gill and his wife, Debbie Gill, rode from their Finksburg home to the party in a new pumper belonging to Garrison Station No. 19, where he ended his 16-year professional career with the Baltimore County Fire Department.

He had also served as a volunteer firefighter for 23 years and was a member of the volunteer fire company at Owings Mills, where he grew up.

"There isn't a job like it in the world," Mr. Gill said Friday.

Friends gathered over a dinner of ham and oysters to honor his sacrifice and to say they would miss him. When Mr. Gill entered the fire hall, people lined up to hug him. "We love you, Bud!" someone shouted.

"He was a born firefighter," said his brother-in-law and fellow firefighter, Capt. Robert Schwartz of Hampstead, a member of the Pikesville Engine No. 2 station.

At about 10 p.m. on April 30, 1991, Mr. Schwartz said his crew was called to set up a landing site for a state MedEvac helicopter. He said he did not know that the helicopter was coming for Mr. Gill until he saw him.

That evening, Mr. Gill had helped put out a fire at a Bob's Big Boy restaurant on Reisterstown Road. He was helping remove )) debris when some industrial cleaner containing lye spilled from a partially melted container and splashed into his face.

It took several men to hold Mr. Gill down while paramedics flushed his face with water. Their quick action saved Mr. Gill's eyesight, Mr. Schwartz said.

Burns to one eye and the rest of Mr. Gill's face healed eventually, Mr. Schwartz said, but in August the other eye ruptured and was lost.

Mrs. Gill said her husband has had five operations on his eye and eyelid, and still faces at least two more operations.

Virginia Williams, wife of Capt. Gene Williams, who worked with Mr. Gill at the time, spoke of the fraternity among firefighters who shared Mr.Gill's pain. "They become a family," she said. "When it happens to one, it happens to all."

Many would-be guests had to be turned away Friday night. Many of those inside embraced, and tears -- of joy and sorrow -- flowed freely.

Donna Oursler, wife of firefighter Lt. Wayne Oursler, presented Mr. Gill the cross-stitched replica of the Station 19 insignia.

Firefighter Don Love read a poem he had written for the occasion, inscribed on a plaque to be hung at the fire house.

Retired Baltimore County Chief Deputy Tim Judge said one of Mr. Gill's early chiefs had called him the best firefighter he'd ever had, and said he could outwork three men.

In recognition of Mr. Gill's years of service, the Baltimore County Fire Department is retiring his badge number, 1911, county Fire Chief Elwood Banister announced. Capt. Williams said this marks the first time the department had ever retired a firefighter's badge number.

Mr. Gill officially retired Feb. 1, after taking a year of accident leave and using his sick pay. He retires with a medical pension.

Mrs. Gill said her husband will be working with horses at Garrison Forest School. In addition, the couple raises thoroughbreds at their home in Finksburg.

After the accolades, when Mr. Gill got up to speak, he was brief, a reluctant hero.

"Thanks a lot," he said. "I love you all. That's it."

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