Today, August 1, marks the 47th anniversary of the Baltimore County Fire Service 's most tragic day, when four firefighters and four civilians were swept to their deaths in a flash flood in eastern Baltimore County.

The fallen are Charles Hopwood, 42 and Douglas Mueller, 18, of the Cowenton Volunteer Fire Department [now the White Marsh Volunteer Fire Co.]; and Milton DeSombre, 49, and Warren E. Shafer, 23, of the Bowleys Quarters Volunteer Fire Department.

"Please take a moment today to remember their sacrifice," said Fire Chief Kyrle W. Preis III. "The passage of nearly five decades does not in any way lessen the magnitude of the heroism on display that day."

Two other Cowenton firefighters, Robert Carr and William Barton, survived but were injured. Robert Carr, who was swept away early in the incident, was rescued after clinging to a telephone pole for 3 1/2 hours.

The disaster culminated in the evening of August 1, 1971. All day, severe thunderstorms carrying torrential rain -- storms reminiscent of the ones the County has endured this year -- tore through the east side of the County. These storms caused widespread flooding and destruction. According to BCoFD's official report on the incident, career and volunteer fire crews, police and citizens all worked furiously to respond to calls for rescue and assistance -- many involving people trapped in vehicles.

Bean Creek at Philadelphia Road and Bush Street

By evening, Bean Creek, a tributary of the Big Gunpowder Falls and normally a small, quiet stream running under Philadelphia Road, "was a raging monster because of the heavy rains and it had overflowed its banks," according to the BCoFD report.

Fire crews responded to numerous calls in the area of Philadelphia Road and Bush Street when a white, four-door Chevy automobile carrying four people drove into rushing, rising floodwaters until the car stalled. The official report notes that the floodwaters quickly rose above the bumper, and "the firemen had difficulty keeping their footing."

Cowenton's Robert Carr -- the firefighter who survived by clinging to a telephone pole  -- washed away first.

The report describes the moment when the firefighters, the Chevy and its occupants and a tow truck driver who stopped to help were dragged under:

"When towing resumed a second time, the water was near hood level. The car then raised up and floated approximately 30 feet sideways and resettled. The occupants were still in the car. The firefighters and tow truck operator were still hanging onto the car. Mr. Woods (the driver) hollered to the occupants inside the car to jump out. By this time the water was over their laps. They opened both doors on the left side and jumped into the flood water."

A firefighter who survived the incident said he saw "the car and occupants, firemen and the tow truck driver, being washed away. The car crested on what seemed to be a wave, washed over the now river-like stream and went under. All of the would-be rescuers went in with the car. The front end of the car bobbed to the surface for a few seconds and then disappeared down through the trees." The time was 8:35 p.m.

Of 10 people carried away by the floodwaters, eight lost their lives: The four firefighters, the tow truck driver and three of the four occupants of the car (a couple, both 49, and a 44-year-old man).

Lessons for Today

This terrible incident is often attributed -- incorrectly -- to Hurricane Agnes, which occurred nearly a year later, in June 1972.

The August 1, 1971 disaster was not part of any named tropical storm. Rather, it was the product of a single stalled thunderstorm, the kind that occur with regularity in the mid-Atlantic and similar to the storms and heavy rains that recently devastated nearby Ellicott City and areas of western Baltimore County and created dangerous conditions throughout the region.

"For today's first responders and residents, the 1971 tragedy carries important lessons," Chief Preis said. "It reminds us of the unpredictability of weather, that even 'routine' storms can be life-threatening and that caution, preparation and good decision making really can mean the difference between life and death."