30-years-ago: DCFD fighting fires and saving lives

A look back to the Missouri Avenue fire of August 30, 1988

(Note: This is WUSA-TV anchor Bruce Johnson’s version of the story. The one I did is not available.)

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It was an early morning call from the assignment desk 30-years-ago yesterday (Thursday). The message went something like, “Bad fire in DC. 409 Missouri, NW. Sheldon’s on the scene. Meet him and a live truck.” That was the beginning of one of the most memorable stories of my broadcasting career.

It was memorable for many reasons. Most important is the DC Fire Department rescued three children and two adults from a row house fire. Four of them were in cardiac or respiratory arrest. They revived all four, but only two ultimately survived.

It was also memorable because the department was at a low point. I had been kept busy with story after story about lost ambulances, run down apparatus (actually saw a kitchen chair being used as a tiller seat), morale problems and much more. Things were so bad there was even a controversy about the International Association of Fire Chiefs Convention that was in Washington the same week as the fire. There were allegations of racism because the host chief, T.R. Coleman, did not make the cover of Fire Chief Magazine as had been the custom. In other words, it was an ugly time.

Sheldon’s video was also quite memorable. It showed the victims being brought out of the burning home. It won many awards, including a Gold Medal from the New York Film Festival. It was also used in an episode of “Rescue 911” with Willliam Shatner (below). More important, the video was a morale booster when it was most needed. With thousands of fire service leaders meeting in the Nation’s Capital it was a reminder that, despite all the crap making news, the DC Fire Department was still saving lives every day.

The part of the story that impacted me most didn’t happen until 23-years after the fire. One afternoon in 2011 I was leaving a planning committee meeting in Emmitsburg, Maryland for the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation’s Memorial Weekend when the phone rang. The young women calling said she worked for the Howard County (MD) Department of Fire and Rescue Services. She was referred to me by my old friend Bill Goddard, then chief of the department, who had been at the earlier meeting. She wanted to talk about live streaming of Memorial Weekend events. She also told me that since I had worked in TV in Washington that Chief Goddard thought I might help her find video of a fire at the home of her grandparents.

My initial thought was that it would be very unlikely to find some house fire from a couple of decades ago. But as the conversation went on, the details started sounding familiar. I interrupted her at one 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.

I was talking with Jackie Cutler, now Jackie Kotei. That’s six-year-old Jackie Cutler at the very beginning of the video (above) as Paramedic Wilmer Scott breathes for her (Wilmer, known as Scotty, passed away a few years ago). Three years before this phone conversation–on the 20th anniversary of the fire–I had tried unsuccessfully to track down Jackie for a story I wanted to do for WUSA-TV. It was nice to finally talk with her.

Jackie Kotei with Nia (l) and Nikoi

I talked to Jackie again today. Now the mother of two, two-year-old Nia and four-year-old Nikoi, Jackie has her own public relations firm. Jackie and husband Alex are on a “stay-cation” this week getting the kids ready for school.

Jackie lost her little sister Gwendolyn in the fire. Gwendolyn was the same age as her son Nikoi. Thirty-years-later it’s still an enormous loss. Jackie told me she remains overwhelmed by her bond to the fire service and the wonderful members of the DC Fire Department who came to the rescue of her family on August 30, 1988.

A couple of other notes about the video. This week I have been in many Facebook conversations over the video of police officers in Denver detaining the editor of a newspaper as she tried to take pictures of EMS and police dealing with a handcuffed and partially naked man on a public sidewalk. A large number of those commenting made the point of how low news media standards have become. They claim the press is always trying to shoot and publish graphic scenes. My response has been that just the opposite is true. Standards for what local TV news shows have gone the other way. It’s very rare for the news to run video of CPR in progress or air images of a dead person. TV stations even stopped shooting and running body bag shots long ago. The assignment desk asking “Did you get the body shot?” is mostly a thing of the past. When I started in TV in the 1980s, seeing all of those things on the air was pretty common and there was little push-back from the public. I’m reasonably certain Sheldon’s video from 1988 would be greatly censored on local TV today.

Also, as Sheldon was trying to shoot the video on Missouri Avenue, a DC Police officer kept trying to block his shots. When Sheldon moved the officer tried to move in front of him. Sheldon was well known to the members of the DC Fire Department (now DC Fire & EMS Department). They always welcomed him on the fireground. For some reason this officer, like the ones in Denver, wanted to be the editor-in-chief, deciding what the news can or can’t show. Thankfully Sheldon persevered and was able to get some remarkable video, along with a story that had great impact and lives on thirty years later.

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