Sunday, March 23, 2003

Family visits scene of fatal fire


Colleagues offer support, seek answers

By Cindi Andrews
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[photo] Annette Armstrong (far right), the mother of Oscar Armstrong, along with other family members and friends, visits Saturday the site of the Bond Hill blaze where the firefighter died.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
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Ozzie Armstrong found his calling in college.

Not in any class, but in a fire at his dormitory. He'd already escaped, but he returned to pull out a disabled student.

That's when he knew he wanted to be a firefighter, his family says.

Oscar Armstrong III died Friday morning doing the job that he loved. He was on a hose line fighting a three-alarm fire Friday morning when a flashover - a superheated eruption of flames - occurred.

[photo] Oscar Armstrong with his 5-year-old sons, Isaiah (left) and Oscar IV.
(Family photo)
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Armstrong, 25, was the father of two 5-year-old boys, and his fiancee is expecting his third child in August. Last year, he bought a house in College Hill, just blocks from his mother, Annette Armstrong.

His family visited the fire scene, at 1131 Laidlaw Ave., Saturday. They gazed at the remains of the brick two-story house before hugging firefighters.

"They've provided a lot of support at a very difficult time," Annette Armstrong said.

Companies of firefighters took turns going to the fire scene Saturday so they could see and hear for themselves what had happened.

[photo] Vicki Johnson of Roselawn places flowers in front the house where Armstrong died.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
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"It's good for the firemen," said department trainer Grant Light. "You want to be able to, in your mind, put all the pictures together."

Several firefighters carried Armstrong out after the flashover, Light said, while another jumped out a first-floor window to get out of the way.

Two colleagues - Wylene Brown, 50, and Paul Freeman, 32 - were treated Friday at University Hospital and released.

Investigators were at the scene Saturday trying to ascertain the cause of the fire. It's being investigated by both the police and fire departments - standard procedure when there's a death. Officials don't suspect arson.

Armstrong, who had been a firefighter since January 2000, grew up in Walnut Hills and graduated from Hughes Center (Class of '95) in University Heights. He briefly attended Wright State University in Dayton.

Hughes principal Bob Suess remembered his former student well.

OTHERS WHO DIED
These Cincinnati firefighters have died on duty since 1955:
January 1981: Lawrence Hauserman. Fell.
March 1971: Eugene Baitz. Died in an explosion.
September 1967: John C. Bickers. Hit by a drunken driver while directing his ladder truck as it backed into the firehouse.
July 1966: Paul Kathman. Electrocuted.
April 1965: Robert Kief. Flashover.
July 1961: Robert Riegler. Smoke inhalation.
November 1959: Charles "Red'' Trindle. Heart attack after a fire.
June 1959: Lt. Robert Beyer. Coronary occlusion at a training fire.
September 1955: Capt. Fred Beckham. Smoke inhalation.
For a complete list, go to Web site.
"He was always that type of kid who cared, not only about himself, but about others," Suess said. "The fact he ended up as a firefighter doesn't surprise me in the least."

Suess heard about Armstrong's death Friday from a staff member. When Suess heard the name, he wondered if it could be Ozzie, so he read news accounts and then pored over school records.

"I actually sat in my office and cried. Principals aren't supposed to have favorites. But even after eight years, I still remember him. Just thinking of him still brings a smile to my face."

Suess was principal of Shroder Paideiain Kennedy Heights when Armstrong attended middle school there. He became principal at Hughes in 1994.

"Even in the seventh grade, he seemed mature beyond his years," Suess said.

Now, Armstrong will be memorialized as a fallen hero. The Bond Hill Community Council declared Saturday Oscar Armstrong III Day.

Flags flew at half-staff all over Cincinnati, and flowers began accumulating at 1131 Laidlaw, Armstrong's fire station and the Cincinnati Firefighters Memorial downtown.

"I don't know anything about the gentleman; I just know he worked for us," said Roselawn resident Vicki Johnson, who drove to Bond Hill to place a small bouquet of yellow and red flowers at the fire scene.

The Cincinnati Fire Fighters Union Local 48 held a small ceremony Saturday afternoon at the Cincinnati Firefighters Memorial, which had been freshly planted with purple pansies. Armstrong's black rubber boots were placed on either side of a small white cross bearing his name.

Funeral arrangements have not been finalized. A memorial fund - the Oscar Armstrong III Cincinnati Firefighter Engine No. 9 Memorial Fund - has been established at Fifth Third Bank to support Armstrong's children.

Reporters Cindy Kranz and Jane Prendergast contributed. E-mail candrews@enquirer.com





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