It’s been 15 years, but to Pittsburgh Master Firefighter Mike Suska, it feels like yesterday. Suska and other firefighters today will journey to the gravesites of three of their fallen comrades, who died Feb. 14, 1995, in an East Hills house fire.
“It affected my life a lot, and even after 15 years, it still does,” said Suska, a 29-year veteran of the Fire Bureau. “I want these younger guys to know that when you leave the station house, it doesn’t always mean you’ll come back. We need to respect the sacrifice they made, and never forget it.
“There’s a very serious side to this job, and the deaths of the three of them really drove that point home.”
It was a cold Tuesday just after midnight when Captain Thomas Brooks of Engine 17 in Homewood and Firefighters Patricia Conroy and Marc Kolenda of Engine 8 in East Liberty were sent to a burning home on Bricelyn Street. Conroy and Kolenda were working from Engine 17 that day.
Brooks, 42, Conroy, 43, and Kolenda, 27, became separated from other crews when a stairwell inside the home collapsed. Because of errors and gaps in procedure, fellow firefighters didn’t know the three were trapped and possibly unconscious until it was too late.
According to a report from a board of inquiry, their air masks malfunctioned, allowing them to inhale deadly gases. They didn’t all have radios to call for help. Low-air indicators on their tanks and personal alerts that emit alarms did not work. There was no system outside the building to account for all firefighters at the scene.
City officials learned from the tragedy. It bought air masks and attached personal alert devices to the air equipment. Every firefighter has a portable radio. Response procedures changed; safety units are posted at each fire solely to rescue firefighters in trouble.
“Some good things came from that, because there’s better accountability now,” said fire Capt. James Wyzomirski.
Brooks, a 13-year veteran, left behind two children. Conroy, an 8-year-veteran, and Kolenda, a firefighter for 14 months, were single and childless.
“We are the ones who may be called upon to make the ultimate sacrifice. We try not to talk about it. We train to prevent it,” said city Fire Chief Darryl Jones. “One of the safety slogans in emergency services is ‘Everyone goes home.’ However, we know that anyone of us may be called upon to make the ultimate sacrifice.”
Plaques hang in the Engine 8 station house on Penn Circle, memorializing the three. At Engine 17, a stone slab engraved with their names sits at the base of the flagpole, and their photos hang inside with the memorial service program, said Capt. Ed Farley.
Firefighters talk about the fatal fire from time to time, and those who worked with the men — including Engine 8 Captains Jim Petruzzi and Jim Dolan — try to keep alive their memories.
“A lot of the guys who were around then have retired now,” Farley said. “But we talk about it, and we always tell them in the training academy not to take anything for granted, because this could happen again at any time.”