Friday, March 28, 2003

Firefighters, city pay tribute

By Jane Prendergast
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Flag-draped casket
Symbolic firefighter's helmet and boots are set at the head of a flag-draped casket.

(Michael E. Keating photos)
Gallery of images
WCPO video of the services

Cincinnati commemorated one firefighter's short life Thursday with a long day of pomp and ceremony as hundreds of firefighters from across the country marched through downtown to lay a hero to rest.

The city buried Oscar Armstrong III, the first firefighter killed on duty in the city in 22 years, at a time when the nation still remembers from the 9-11 terror attacks how deadly a firefighter's job can be.

And it was reminded that even small-scale kitchen fires can turn out to be anything but routine.

The city buried a man who did what 800 firefighters in Cincinnati do every day.

Firefighters like Adrian Burton.

If he hadn't taken a vacation day last Friday, Burton would've been on Engine 2 when it made the run to the one-alarm kitchen fire on Laidlaw Avenue in Bond Hill. It was there that his friend, the 25-year-old Armstrong, took a hose line into the fire and was killed when the room erupted in a flashover, engulfing everything - and everyone - inside.

Burton is like Armstrong in a lot of ways. He's young (28), African-American, a father of two. He's a new firefighter now - at his level, they're called "roughnecks" - but has thought about moving up through the ranks. They graduated together in fire recruit Class 104, almost three years ago.

Armstrong once bet Burton he'd be chief first. Burton laughed. "Ozzie,'' he said, "we're not even out of drill school yet.''

In the week since his friend burned, he has been thinking a lot about the serious themes that surround Armstrong's death. Job safety. Grieving publicly. Brotherhood. Taking care of a dead man's two little boys.

"The bottom line is somebody got hurt. Somebody's not going home. We take it for granted every day when you kiss your wife and leave out of the house in the morning. You almost have to.

"It had been so long since something bad happened. We'd been so blessed.''

Breakfast and memories

For Burton, Thursday morning was the beginning of the end of an exhausting week of grieving Armstrong's death and helping plan his elaborate sendoff. The day began at 5 a.m. as Burton and the rest of the guys on Engine 2 decided they'd make a firehouse breakfast of eggs and sausage and spend a little time together before joining the rest of the department at the church.

So while Armstrong's mother, fiancee, sons and other family members were making their way in gold Cadillac limousines from Zion Baptist Church in Avondale, Burton and the rest of Engine 2 talked about the many runs they made with Armstrong and the crew of Engine 9.

Burton went next door to the United Dairy Farmers store to buy a handful of individually wrapped roses that sit in a bucket on the counter. He wanted each Engine 2 man to have one.

They drove to the fire scene and left them there.

The funeral procession that would later grow to more than 200 fire vehicles was still small at this point. It was just family, Engine 9 and escorts when they stopped briefly at Engine 9's house on Reading Road in Avondale to pray.

Firefighters loaded several bouquets of flowers that had been left on the lawn on top of Engine 9 for the ride to the church and cemetery. The truck - draped in black fabric, with a 9 on the front made of carnations - led a caravan of six limos, 14 police motorcycles and seven police cruisers, their lights flashing.

Burton made his way to the church, on his own firetruck.

Downtown's St. Xavier Church, capacity 938, was packed. Firefighters squeezed into the balcony around the pipe organ. Burton sat in the seventh row with the 38 members left of Class 104.

He couldn't help but laugh as Firefighter Ron Bracey told about Armstrong's way with nicknames - he never called anyone by their actual name. For Burton, it was always "Burt'' or "A.J.'' or whatever else he made up at the time.

In return, they called him "The Professor"because he read so much. He was also "The Sponge" because he was always asking questions.

Burton remembered Armstrong was always talking about building a doghouse. Then, for a while, the big topic was how he and his best friend, firefighter Chris Bishop, were going to get serious about bike riding.

Armstrong's mother, Annette, thanked everyone for the tremendous outpouring of support. The 90-minute funeral ended with Fire Chief Robert Wright handing rubber boots to Armstrong's sister Twinkle Dawson and a new red fire helmet to his brother Omar.

His mother was given a commemorative line-of-duty death medal and his badge, No. 61.

Outside, the traditional honors bestowed upon fallen firefighters hit full force. There was an honor guard with at least 50 flags. Two dozen bagpipers wailed, their sound faint at first, then louder.

Hundreds of firefighters from Cincinnati, hundreds more from dozens of townships, villages and cities - all in dress uniforms. More than 200 firetrucks and other emergency vehicles. All were lined up to escort Armstrong's casket down Sycamore Street and along Sixth Street, then on to Spring Grove Cemetery.

Burton sat, again, in Engine 2. As the procession moved to the fire memorial on Central Avenue, he saw people lining the route - women, men, children, the city's police chief and people who appeared to have just stepped out of their offices on their lunch breaks.

This is what hit him most about the entire day.

"These were people that didn't even know Oscar at all. And they had his picture in their hands," Burton said. "One of the reasons I wanted to do this job was because you're going to affect somebody's life. And I realized Oscar affected these people's lives.''

Historic Section 39

At the cemetery, Burton's job was to lead the horse as it pulled the caisson carrying Armstrong's casket.

The horse, wanting to go too soon, started shaking its head and stomping one hoof. Burton grew a little concerned, wondering what he'd do if the horse bolted. He needed a moment of levity. So he and his partner, Steve Dengler, another classmate, decided the horse was acting out because it knew it was ugly.

Burton was glad, in a way, not to be a pallbearer. Most were from Engine 9. He wondered if he would handle it OK.

"If I would break down,'' he said, "I would think of it as letting Oscar down. I didn't want to do that.''

He walked alongside the horse, in front of the carriage, winding about a half-mile back into Spring Grove. He stood in the sun at the gravesite in Section 39, a historic plot for firefighters only. He listened as Armstrong's brother-in-law Kelly Dawson expressed more gratitude for all the support and again asked that it continue for the family's sake.

Burton thought about how the grand firefighter-burial tradition forces a family to grieve so publicly.

"But he's got 800 brothers. That's just how it is.''

He also thought about how the big showing proved that sometimes, the Fire Department - where divisions along racial lines have made headlines in the past - can come together.

He talked Wednesday night to Armstrong's fiancee, Sakina Devereaux. He asked if he could take his friend's boys out occasionally, maybe to a ballgame with his son. She said that would be nice.

"That's how I feel like I can contribute,'' Burton said. "Because that's the one thing I will always remember about him, that he was a good father. He talked about his kids constantly. I always thought he was the kind of father I want to be.''

During Thursday's funeral, the Rev. Damon Lynch Jr. asked those in the crowded church to do the same thing. It will be important, he said, to let the boys - and the baby due in August - know as much as possible about their dad and the job he held.

"The kids will be taken care of,'' Burton said, relaxing at the end of the draining 11-hour day with a sandwich, a lump of potato salad and a beer at Music Hall. The union collected enough donated food and money to feed many more than the hundreds who came.

"Those kids have 800 fathers and mothers in the Fire Department.''

He has thought of Armstrong's boys a lot. He did again when his own son, 3-year-old Adrian Jr., asked him where he was going in his dress uniform.

He wanted to be honest, but yet sugarcoat it a little. He said a friend of his died in a fire. The boy asked if he went to the hospital in an ambulance. His dad said yes. Adrian Jr. said that was "huge.''

His dad wasn't sure where that word came from, but he thought about it and agreed - it's huge to lose a firefighter.

Many questions; few answers

He hasn't been back to work since his friend burned. That day will come Sunday.

He's overcome some of his questions about what happened a week ago today in Bond Hill. At first, he wanted to know more. He wanted to know if what happened to Armstrong could have been prevented. Local and federal officials are still investigating.

"My thing was, if it's something that was avoidable, then OK, let's learn from this,'' he said. "But if it was not avoidable, then I'm playing Russian roulette with my family. I was having trouble with that.

"But I'm still going to do what I'm trained to do. It's just what we do. This is a great job. I still love it. But I'll be thinking about it all the way up until I go in there on Sunday."

He expects butterflies, even nausea, when he has to run out the station door, jump into his gear and climb into Engine 2.

It might even be for something pretty routine, like a one-alarm kitchen fire.


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