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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."

The viewing for Officer Caprio, killed in the line of duty earlier this week, will take place on Thursday, May 24. The viewing will be held at Schimunek Funeral Home, 9705 Belair Road Nottingham, MD 21236.

There will be a private viewing from 1 to 2 p.m., followed by a public viewing from 2 to 5 p.m. and an additional public viewing from 7 to 9 p.m.

Due to the volume of cars expected for the viewing, all lanes of Belair Road will be closed in both directions between Chapel Road and Honeygo Boulevard from noon until 10 p.m. Sign boards will be up diverting traffic to Joppa Road, Chapel Road and Honeygo Boulevard with detour instructions.

Officers will be posted at both ends of the road closure to assist motorists. If you are a resident or are attending the viewing, these officers will allow motorists through on Belair Road.

Today’s Fallen Heroes Day ceremony honored Captain William Miller and Fireman Carl Dill, two Baltimore County firefighters who died in the line of duty 62 years ago.

On February 7, 1955, in the early hours of the morning, units responded to the Westgate Shopping Center in the 5500 block of Old Edmondson Avenue for a report of a massive fire that was quickly growing. Clouds of smoke rose 150 feet into the air and flames threatened to spread to a nearby nursing home.

Captain Miller and Fireman Dill took a hose into the basement to target the source of the fire. The other hose team with them retreated from the basement to tackle the flames from an exterior position, and shortly after that the roof of the building collapsed.

  

   

  

   

  

  

  

  

  

  

When rescuers fought their way through debris looking for the missing men, they found Fireman Dill on his back, arms outstretched, with Captain Miller lying, face down, across his body. The speculation was that Captain Miller had been trying to carry his companion, who suffered broken bones, to safety.

At the time, Baltimore County Fire Chief Anthony Orban, described Captain Miller as the kind of man who never would leave a partner in trouble, and Fireman Dill as “absolutely fearless.”

The Fallen Heroes Day ceremony is held every year to honor Maryland's law enforcement officers, correctional officers and fire and EMS personnel who have given their lives in service to others.

 
 
Revised June 27, 2017