Forward: Please keep this hero and his family in your thoughts and prayers.- Magnolia Media staff.
By ERIC STIRGUS, SAEED AHMED The Atlanta Journal-ConstitutionPublished on: 05/29/07
On a day when the nation paused to commemorate those who fell in military service, Fulton County Fire Station No. 8 mourned the death of firefighter Felix Roberts, who also died in the line of duty.
Roberts, 41, tried to save a man inside a burning home Monday morning and became the first firefighter killed in the county department's 29-year history.
Roberts was near the end of his 24-hour shift at the station on Old Alabama Road on Monday. One more hour, and he'd be driving to his Douglasville home to spend the holiday with his mother, who had flown in from Tampa, family members said.
Then the emergency call came in shortly before 5 a.m. A two-story red brick home in the Glastonberry subdivision in the new city of Johns Creek was in flames. The city, only five months old, doesn't have a fire department, so five firefighters from Station 8 rushed to the scene.
The couple sleeping inside was awakened by their barking dog. The woman, Mardi Baumann, 50, escaped with her dog and ran to the homes of several neighbors, ringing their doorbells and pleading for help.
Her fiancé, John Callahan, 57, was trapped inside.
Callahan had been a longtime companion of Baumann, who is divorced with three daughters in their 20s. The couple spent a Memorial Day dinner with neighbors Sunday night.
"She rang my bell, but it didn't really wake me up," said neighbor Mike Nuzzo, 41. "Then I heard her screaming at the top of her lungs."
Several residents ran to the house. Nuzzo said he grabbed a sledgehammer from his home and broke down the front door. The heavy smoke forced them to retreat."It was smoke so thick we couldn't get within a couple of feet inside the front door," Nuzzo said. "I could barely see the stairs."
Within minutes, Roberts and the other firefighters arrived. Three searched the house in one direction. Two went the other way. As the two firefighters searched near the kitchen, they were overcome by a sudden burst of heat and smoke known as a "flashover," officials said. It happens when the chemicals released from burning carpets and other synthetics mingle with the fire.
"Think of a giant molotov cocktail, a huge fireball going off right in the middle while the firefighters were in there," said state Fire Safety Commissioner John Oxendine. "The entire house just filled up with flames shooting out of every opening."
The cause of the blaze at the house on Gorham Close hasn't been determined, but Oxendine said candles left burning in the home's screened porch may be to blame.Callahan, officials said, tried to escape the home but apparently became disoriented and died in the blaze. He was later found in a room over the garage.
"Some witnesses said he stuck his head out the window," Oxendine said. "When they told him to jump, he said, 'I don't know where I am.' "Other firefighters pulled the two injured firefighters out the home. Capt. Wayne Gilliard suffered second-degree burns on his hand and was taken to Grady Memorial Hospital. Another firefighter, Capt. Anthony Avery, was taken to North Fulton Regional Hospital for chest discomfort. Roberts died at North Fulton Regional Hospital.
Roberts had always wanted to be a firefighter, family members said. A Desert Storm veteran, he joined the Fulton County fire department in February 1999. A department news release described him as a "model employee." He also fought fires for the Sandy Springs fire department.
Monday evening, firefighters at Station 8 did not want to talk about the death. The flag outside stood at half-staff. Bouquets of flowers rested under it. Grieving neighbors had brought them throughout the day.
"As you can imagine, losing a family member is tough. It's a sad time for all of us," said department spokesman Lt. Gregory Chambers. "It's just one of those things we have to get through. But we will, we will."Troy Smith, who was once married to Roberts' sister, said he'd known Roberts for more than 20 years."He was like my little brother, and I was the big brother who looked up to him," said Smith, 46, of Stone Mountain. "I was the one with the big ideas, but he was the one who actually got them done."
Smith, a code enforcement officer, said he also wanted to be a firefighter and had gotten the paperwork to join the department, "but [Felix] was the one who filled it out, passed the test and became one," he said. Roberts leaves behind his mother and four siblings. Funeral arrangements have not yet been made.