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(Note: Thanks to retired Deputy Chief Demetrios “Jim” Vlassopoulos for providing additional archival material for this story.)
Does this sound familiar? The fire department in the Nation’s Capital appearing on local TV news almost nightly. Ambulance delays related to the deaths of patients, equipment problems, serious morale issues and a controversial fire chief under attack. That was the scene a quarter-century-ago as the convention of the International Association of Fire Chiefs was headed to Washington, DC in August. The controversy in the department even extended to that convention with cries of racism after the picture of the host chief, T.R. Coleman, did not make the cover of Fire Chief Magazine, as had been the custom. Things were ugly.
But then something happened that, for a moment, lifted the department above the politics and the problems. The event put the focus where it belonged, on the men and women who every day fight the fires and save the lives.
It was exactly 25-years-ago this (Friday) morning that the late Channel 9 videographer Sheldon Levy, working his usual overnight shift, pulled up in front of 409 Missouri Avenue, NW as firefighters, EMTs and paramedics went to work at a row house fire. Sheldon’s remarkable video brought into the homes of the people in the Washington area a very different image of the DC Fire Department than they had been seeing in the previous weeks and months. The story of the Missouri Avenue fire was spread far and wide thanks to the TV show “Rescue 911” which also used Sheldon’s video (see video below).
Four lifeless bodies were brought out of that house. Three children and an adult. Four people, all in arrest. As we know, the odds of survival in that situation are not good. But remarkably two of the children survived. One of them was Jackie Cutler, now Jackie Kotei.
Today, Channel 9 reporter Scott Broom talked with Jackie Kotei. They met at Jackie’s place of employment, the Howard County Department of Fire and Rescue Services. It’s where Jackie helps get the message out about the work of the department and assists in spreading the word about fire safety.
I was the reporter for Channel 9 on that story in 1988. In 2008, aware the 20th anniversary was coming up, I tried to do what Scott Broom did today and track down the family. I called the house and talked with Jackie’s grandfather who has since passed away. He didn’t want to go on TV, but remembered talking with me in 1988 and suggested I call his daughter at work. I spoke with Jackie’s mom a few minutes later. She told me I really need to talk to her daughter Jackie who, at the time, was working as a TV reporter in Hagerstown, Maryland. For some reason Jackie and I never connected and I never did the anniversary story. But a funny thing happened about three years later.
I was leaving a planning committee meeting in Emmitsburg for the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation’s Memorial Weekend, heading for my hotel in Gettysburg when my cell phone rang. The young women on the other end of the line said that she worked for Howard County and that Chief Bill Goddard suggested she call me for information about the streaming of the Memorial Weekend telecasts. Bill Goddard and I are old friends from PGFD and he had told me at the meeting a woman who worked for him might call. As the conversation about Memorial Weekend wrapped up the women said Chief Goddard thought that since I had worked in television in DC I might be able to help her with another matter. She was looking for video of a fire at her childhood home. My first thought was, what’s the likelihood of finding that?
As the conversation went on, the details started sounding familiar. I interrupted her at some point and asked, “Was this Missouri Avenue?” She responded, “Yes, are you familiar with the fire?” I have to admit it took me a moment to compose myself.
Jackie and I finally got to meet a few weeks after that conversation when she attended the 2011 Memorial Service in Emmitsburg with her mom. We now communicate pretty regularly on various projects. I’m so happy her story has finally been told.
And the story should be a reminder for all of us, that despite all the bad news we’ve been sharing with you about the DC Fire & EMS Department in recent months, there are still firefighters, EMTs and paramedics doing their jobs every day prepared to make sure another little girl like Jackie Cutler survives, even when the odds are very much against her