Should there ever be a fire or a medical emergency or a child stuck in the back seat of a car mangled in a collision, we know we can dial 911 and help is on the way. The assistance fire fighters provide is so reliable, so much a given, that it is often taken for granted — even in the era of COVID-19, which has taken such a toll on front line workers; even in a city with a shrinking population that has been forced to close fire stations; even knowing that running into a burning building in Baltimore runs counter to the most basic of human instincts. Most of us don’t spend much time thinking about these heroes, or what they do.
Monday changed that.
Before dawn on Jan. 24, four veteran Baltimore firefighters rushed into a vacant home on South Stricker Street that soon collapsed upon them. Three were killed; one clings to life at the University of Maryland Shock Trauma Center. Gone are firefighters Paul “P.J.” Butrim, a department lieutenant; Kelsey Sadler, who was also a paramedica; and Kenny Lacayo, who was also trained as an emergency medical technician (EMT). EMT/firefighter John McMaster remains in under intensive care, though his condition was blessedly upgraded to “fair” from “critical” Tuesday afternoon. On social media, the hashtag #KeepFightingJohn has become a popular way for co-workers, friends and well-wishers express support for him. A GoFundMe page has been created to benefit all their families.
Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott called the tragedy “gut wrenching” and that is absolutely true. At the scene, Fire Chief Niles Ford struggled to find words. The raw emotions of the day were captured in fleeting images — of grieving firefighters embracing, of the salute to the fallen as their bodies were taken away, of all those heart-heavy men and women in BCFD gear, their heads bowed, quietly walking away when it was time to leave. Statewide, Gov. Larry Hogan ordered flags to fly at half-staff.
Baltimore has witnessed such personal sacrifice before. So have many other jurisdictions. In the United States, line-of-duty firefighter deaths generally number between 60 and 70 each year, according to the National Fire Protection Association. No large fire department is spared such tragedy. Baltimore County lost three firefighters in a 1984 Dundalk furniture store blaze. The city’s last firefighter fatality was a mere eight years ago.
Firefighters Butrim, Sadler, Lacayo and McMaster rushed into a vacant building on Monday because it posed a serious threat to adjacent occupied homes. They surely knew the risk. They went in anyway. They did it for the sake of others.
They were brave, they were dedicated, they were devoted. Lt. Butrim was previously honored for valor for saving a child from a burning apartment in 2015. Mr. Lacayo was named paramedic of the year and a top 10 responder when he served in Montgomery County. Ms. Sadler, a 15-year BCFD veteran, told a reporter for WBAL-TV in 2007 that the death of a fellow member of her training class would not deter her from her career choice. She said she knew “this is what I want to do, and I love it.”
Firefighter was core to their being.
No doubt there are lessons to be learned from this terrible event. There have already been questions raised about the adequacy of firefighter pay, the maintenance of their equipment and staffing issues well before today. Meanwhile, how best to deal with Baltimore’s thousands of vacant homes, many of them potential tinderboxes waiting for an errant flame, is a perennial topic that deserves to be revisited as well. But that is for tomorrow. Today is for honoring Baltimore’s finest, our community’s selfless protectors, the folks who rush in where the less extraordinary would fear to go.
It is said that bravery is best measured not by the absence of fear but by an individual’s actions in the face of fear. Our profoundest thanks, our deepest sympathies, our respect and admiration to these brave heroes who gave their full measure, to their families, to their colleague,s to their communities. We owe them a debt that we cannot repay.
Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.