Saturday, March 22, 2003

City firefighter, 25, dies in blaze; department mourns

Armstrong left two young sons; fiancee expects another child

By Dan Klepal
The Cincinnati Enquirer

A Cincinnati firefighter drags a hoseline up Ladder 32 at the scene of a three-alarm fire in at Laidlaw and Corinth Avenues in Bond Hill Friday morning which killed firefighter Oscar Armstrong.
(Photo by Glenn Hartong/The Cincinnati Enquirer)
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A Cincinnati firefighter drags a hoseline up Ladder 32 at the scene of a three-alarm fire in at Laidlaw and Corinth Avenues in Bond Hill Friday morning which killed firefighter Oscar Armstrong.
(Photo by Glenn Hartong/The Cincinnati Enquirer)
| ZOOM |

A pair of empty boots will make the long procession from the firehouse to the funeral parlor next week.

Empty boots, a symbol for a firefighter killed in the line of duty, are a reality the Cincinnati Fire Department hasn't had to deal with in more than two decades.

Until Friday morning.

Oscar Armstrong III, a 25-year-old firefighter with three years' experience, two children and a pregnant fiancee, lost his life battling a house fire in Bond Hill. He was pronounced dead at University Hospital at 9:28 a.m. after leading a fire hose into the front room of a house that became superheated to the point that plumes of flame spontaneously burst. The event is called a flashover.

Armstrong's death hit his brothers and sisters in the firefighting community hard.

"This is the worst day in my 30-year career," Cincinnati Fire Chief Robert Wright said. "This morning we lost a brother and a friend."

All day Friday, firefighters from companies across the city were taken out of service temporarily so they could visit the fire scene at 1131 Laidlaw Ave.

Firefighter trainer Tom Lakamp was there, explaining how the fire, believed to have started in the kitchen, went out of control. He said the idea was to give everyone in the department a chance to grieve and learn from what happened.

Melissa Brown, a District 2 firefighter who graduated from the academy with Armstrong, said the tragedy cut down a firefighter destined for greatness.

His sense of humor, she said, also provided relief at the academy and around his station, Engine Company 9 in Bond Hill. And he doted over his two boys, ages 5 and 6.

"He was very smart and strong," Brown said as she stood Friday afternoon by the Cincinnati Firefighters Memorial on Central Avenue. "We all thought he was going to rise through the ranks."

The loss was softened a bit with the knowledge that Armstrong died doing exactly what he wanted to do. Armstrong's mother, Annette of Bond Hill, told Cincinnati City Manager Valerie Lemmie that her son had said Thursday that he made "the best career choice possible."

George Burke, a spokesman for the International Association of Firefighters in Washington, said Armstrong's name will be added to the Fallen Firefighter Memorial at the foot of Pike's Peak in Colorado Springs, Colo., during a ceremony Sept. 20. Burke said the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, when hundreds of firefighters lost their lives, has raised awareness of first responders nationwide.

"The public has always held firefighters in very high regard, but that may have been brought to more public attention as a result of 9-11."

Nationally, an average of two firefighters are killed each week in the line of duty, Burke said.

Armstrong's death comes during the department's 150th anniversary. Cincinnati established the first paid, full-time fire department in the country in 1853, using steam fire engines pulled by horses. The department has an anniversary ball planned Saturday at Union Terminal.

"This is what the anniversary is about, to honor firefighters," said Barbara Hammond, executive director at the Cincinnati Fire Museum downtown. "It makes it all the more poignant."

Armstrong went into the burning house Friday as the point man on a hose team that was trying to knock down the fire from the inside. Wright said the decision was made early to battle the fire from inside the house, which is the most common way to attack a house fire.

"As long as we can get in the house and there are lives or property at stake, we go in," Wright said. "Very seldom does a fire chase us out."

But that's exactly what happened on Friday.

Firefighters Wylene Brown and Paul Freeman, who went into the house with Armstrong, suffered minor injuries and were treated at University Hospital and released. Wright said he thought Brown was injured jumping out a window in the house.

It was unclear how Armstrong got outside, but he lay next to a broken window and screen beside the charred house as firefighters tried to give him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and briefly started chest compressions before a rescue squad sped him away to shouts of "Go! Go!" according to witnesses.

Hours after the fire was out, firefighters sat or stood quietly in small groups while they cleaned up the scene. About a dozen fire engines, ladder trucks and staff vehicles lined the neighborhood. Police investigators took pictures and processed what had become a crime scene.

Marjorie McKinley, who lives across the street, spotted smoke coming from the house when she returned from church. She watched the fire from about a block away.

"I could see a lot of fire coming out the back," McKinley said.

"Then it was coming out the front. I'd never been through anything like this before. It was scary."

Armstrong's blackened face mask and air bottle lay in the yard alongside the two-story brick home.

At 10:40 a.m., a page was sent to all fire department staffers: "FF Oscar Armstrong died this morning from injuries at a fire on Laidlaw - pray for his family."

"We just don't have any idea what occurred or how the fire started," said Cincinnati Police Chief Thomas Streicher..

"Whenever there's a death, we have to be involved with it."

Fire Chief Wright said there is no suspicion of arson. Federal authorities will be called in to assist in the investigation, he said.

A damage estimate was not available.

The last Cincinnati firefighter killed in the line of duty was Lawrence Hauserman, who died in 1981, two days after suffering injuries in a fall. Before that, Cincinnati Firefighter Eugene Baitz, from Ladder Co. 13, died on March 20, 1971.

David Eck, Rebecca Goodman, Sherry Turco and Jane Prendergast contributed.


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