The premiere of Ladder 49 at the Senator Theatre the other day reminded me of my friend and colleague John F. Steadman, the much-beloved News-American and later Sun sports reporter and columnist, who died three years ago.
Ladder 49 is a movie that John, who grew up a few blocks from the Senator in Govans, probably would have liked as the proud son of a firefighter.
Several years ago, John, who was named for his father, was a speaker at the annual Fallen Heroes Memorial service at Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens in Timonium. He called them "soldiers of safety."
Sitting around the newsroom on an unusually quiet winter's Saturday afternoon a few years back, John recounted for several listeners his father's career with the Baltimore City Fire Department and untimely death.
His father's passion for firefighting began in his youth growing up in Old Town. He was fascinated with the horse-drawn steam fire apparatus and firefighters who were stationed nearby in the old No. 6 Engine Company firehouse.
A graduate of St. John's Parochial School, he worked as a plumber's apprentice before joining the city Fire Department in 1912. He rose rapidly and became a lieutenant in 1921.
After becoming a captain in 1923, he fulfilled a boyhood dream when he was promoted to commanding officer of No. 6 Engine Company. Being a student of firefighting technique helped him advance in the department. He rose to deputy chief in 1932.
At the time of his death in 1940, Steadman, who was second deputy chief of the department, commanded all units east of Charles Street.
"In the absence of superior officers, he had commanded the entire Baltimore firefighting force on a number of occasions," reported The Sun at his death.
On a bitter cold March 2, 1940, an automatic alarm sounded at 9:40 a.m., announcing that a fire had erupted at the Baltimore Lumber Co., in the area of the Fallsway and Monument, Holliday and Centre streets.
A second alarm sounded at 10:05 a.m., when smoke started rising from the Norris Grain Elevator in the same area.
"Although the temperature was just above freezing, the heat from the blaze was searing and many firemen and spectators were blistered," said an account in The Unheralded Heroes, William A. Murray's 1969 history of the city Fire Department.
"It was a masterful show of fire fighting performed as the firemen contained the inferno to the one huge former Pennsylvania Railroad shed which was filled with 3 1/2 million feet of season lumber, 10 freight cars and five trailer trucks, all being destroyed along with seven automobiles parked at the curbside."
Firefighters were still on the scene as the day faded into evening; "the firemen prepared for an all-night vigil, obtaining food and beverages as best they could," wrote Murray.
At the fire, Steadman noticed several firefighters acting unusually. He "observed two firemen skylarking atop a burned-out boxcar, putting on a show for the spectators, who were urging them on; another fireman was lying on a ladder truck. Semi-conscious. Deputy Chief Steadman ordered them taken to the Department Infirmary to be examined by a doctor."
John said it was rumored the three firemen, later charged with being unfit for duty, had been given liquor by spectators to help ward off the bitter cold.
John told me his father knew that the men, who all had families, might lose their jobs and decided to go before the Board of Fire Commissioners on their behalf.
While waiting in an outer office to see the commissioners, he was stricken with a heart attack. He died in an ambulance that was transporting him to Mercy Hospital. He was 49.
"I remember it vividly. It was the Novena of St. Francis and early that morning, he had gone to St. Ignatius on Calvert Street, before going to work," said Thomas F. Steadman, John's brother.
"That afternoon, my mother, John and my sister Betty were attending novena at Blessed Sacrament on Old York Road. I was an altar boy and was on the altar," he said. "As we came out of church, a Fire Department official told us that he had died that afternoon. We were shocked."
A wake was held at the Steadmans' East 41st Street home.
"I think every fireman in the city lined up and passed through the house," Thomas Steadman recalled.
"After the funeral Mass at Blessed Sacrament, we went from North Baltimore to New Cathedral Cemetery on Edmondson Avenue in West Baltimore, and at every firehouse we passed, the trucks were out front and the men were standing dressed in their uniforms. I have never forgotten it," he said.
"I guess it was 25 years after his death, I was at a funeral home and a man said, 'You're Chief Steadman's son." He admitted that he was one of the men who had gotten drunk that night," Steadman said. "He stayed with the department but I think it made him feel good to unburden himself."
In 1973, the John F. Steadman fire station at Lombard and Eutaw streets, next door to the Bromo Seltzer Tower, was dedicated to the memory of a man considered a "fireman's fireman."