Pictured above: (L-R): Jeffrey Urbanik, firefighter/EMT, Assistant Chief Aaron Neely, Brian Turbide, firefighter/EMT and Lt. Thomas Meehan.
It’s not out of the ordinary for VA’s Perry Point Fire Department in Maryland to be called upon to help with an incident in the community—it happens several times a month. But the fire that broke out in a Perryville condominium complex in the early morning hours of Easter Sunday was anything but ordinary. It took four hours and 100 firefighters from Cecil and Harford counties to contain the three-alarm fire, which destroyed 18 condo units, displaced 24 residents, and sent four people to the hospital.
A fire of this magnitude could very likely have been fatal, but fortunately no lives were lost and no one was seriously injured, thanks to the quick response of the firefighters.
Hearing the call and seeing the smoke and flames from the window of the Perry Point firehouse, the crew working that morning— assistant chief Aaron Neely, lieutenant Thomas Meehan, Brian Turbide and Jeffery Urbanik—sprang into action. Their engine was the first to arrive on the scene.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Meehan, who in addition to working with the Perry Point Fire Department, volunteers with the Susquehanna Hose Company in Havre De Grace, Maryland. “We pulled up and we could immediately feel the heat.”
Flames completely engulfed the right side of the condominium building, where residents gathered outside said a woman was trapped in her apartment. The 93-year-old’s son-in-law had tried but was unable to move her from where she lay on her kitchen floor.
When they heard there was a rescue, Meehan said, years of training kicked in and they climbed the stairs to the third floor. “You don’t hesitate. You have a job to do,” he said. They forced open the door and found the rear of the condo partially collapsed and heavy with fire. They couldn’t see but could hear a faint call for help. Using his hands to feel in front of him, Meehan located the woman and pulled her out of the condo.
At that moment, all emergency responders were ordered to evacuation the building. Neely radioed below the news that the woman was found and would need immediate medical attention. She was transported down the stairs, away from the building, and into the hands of the medical personnel waiting for her.
It all happened very quickly, and had the Perry Point crew arrived just a few minutes later, the scenario might have played out differently. “By the time we got downstairs, we looked up and saw there was no way to go back,” Neely said. “The third floor was completely gone, and the second floor was going.”
“Just doing their jobs”
Meanwhile, chief Andrew M. Bannon, Sr., who had come from home and arrived right behind the Perry Point engine, was busy on the other side of the building rescuing one man who was still trapped in his apartment and assisting another who had gotten out of his apartment but couldn’t make it down the stairs. He was checking other units when he heard the evacuation order. Fortunately, all occupants had been accounted for. Additional fire engines and even two fire boats arrived to fight the immense fire, which caused $7.5 million in damages and continued to smolder the following day.
Despite more than 100 combined years of fighting fires, no one on the Perry Point Fire Department crew that morning had ever witnessed a fire of that magnitude. Neely referred to it as a “career fire” – something that happens only once in a lifetime.
While deputy state fire marshal Oliver Alkire and many in the community are calling them heroes, the Perry Point firefighters maintain they were just doing their jobs.
As for the 93-year-old woman, the fact that the Perry Point firefighters “just did their jobs” Easter morning saved her life. After her rescue, she was airlifted to Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, where she was admitted in stable condition and released just a few days later.
lMing Vincenti is a public affairs specialist and community outreach coordinator.