On Tuesday, June 26, 1962, at 3:23 a.m., while on duty, City of Milwaukee patrolmen Robert Drakos and Robert Luczak discovered a rapidly spreading fire in the rear of a combination gas station and apartment on South 27th Street in Greenfield, WI. The officers radioed the fire to their dispatcher.
Although the fire had already found its way into the enclosed stairwell at the rear of the building, the officers were able to climb the stairs and after much difficulty, awoke the seven members of the Buchman family, five of which were children. But now, their exit was blocked as the flames had engulfed the only stairwell into the apartment. The family and the officers were trapped above the fire.
The officers used a phone from the apartment to call the Milwaukee Police Department for additional help. Before help came to them, officers Drakos and Luczak found a new exit at the front of the apartment and led the family through a kitchen window and onto an adjoining roof. A ladder was brought over to this roof and only after all the occupants had safely gotten to the ground, did the officers descend the ladder themselves. Another family member was living in the downstairs apartment and they were alerted to the fire and made their safe escape as well.
In the words of their Patrol Sergeant, Jerome Starke, “Both of these officers demonstrated their courage and above all, their ability to keep a cool head at a time when panic or indecision could have catastrophic results. These officers are to be commended.”
This rescue was made possible only by the grit and determination of two men, who without the aid of protective clothing, air packs, or hose lines, made their way through and above a fire that had the potential to put an early end to their lives as well as the lives of the seven members of the Buchman family.
On June 13, 1991, at nearly 1:00 a.m., the Eau Claire Fire Department was called to a house fire on Park Ridge Drive. Police officers on the scene reported to the en route firefighters that there were still people trapped inside. Engine 9 arrived first and brought a hose line to start extinguishing the fire. Engine 5, operated by Acting Engineer Mark Mernitz, arrived and pulled a second hose line off of Engine 9, and went to the front door to start a right hand search.
Acting Lieutenant Lyle Koerner and Firefighter Scott Burkart of Engine 5 started the search on their hands and knees, as the smoke and heat overhead were still great. Crawling next to the wall, they entered the room where they had been told an infant was located.
The baby was not found in the room, and this information was radioed to command. Koerner and Burkart went back into the smoke filled hallway and continued on the right side. They encountered the closed door of another room, opened it, and started searching. Quickly, the young infant was found in a crib lying on his back, waving his hands in front of his face in an attempt to push away the smoke. Koerner yelled, “I found him!” Cradling 4-month-old Chad Behlke, Koerner grabbed the straps of Burkart’s SCBA and quickly followed him out of the house. Once outside, they placed the baby in the care of an EMT. Meanwhile, Chad’s mother was being care for burns and cuts she received while trying to rescue her baby from the burning home. Chad was hospitalized for smoke inhalation, and both he and his mother recovered fully from their injuries.
In an interview with the Leader Telegram, Burkart was quoted as saying, “The way I see it, Lyle (Koerner) carried the baby out. But everyone there made the recue.” The truth of this statement is evident by the actions taken by the Eau Claire Fire Department members during this potentially fatal fire. The joyous result was the successful rescue of little Chad Behlke.
November 17, 2001, Deputy Kevin Sorenson of the Portage County Sheriff’s Department was on duty when at 1:30 a.m., he was dispatched to a one-car accident on Highway CC. The caller advised that the driver of the car was trapped, unconscious, and had obvious injuries. While enroute to the scene, Deputy Sorenson was advised the car was on fire and that the driver was still trapped.
Nearly twelve minutes after the call came in, Deputy Sorenson arrived and found the wrecked car, off the roadway, with the engine compartment engulfed in flames that raged to four feet in height. Two civilians had been trying to put out the fire. Deputy Sorenson brought his fire extinguisher to the car and then saw the victim, Roche Rossier, partially ejected, hanging facedown out of the driver’s window. Rossier’s legs were trapped between the dashboard and the door. The flames were within one foot of Rossier’s body.
After making an unsuccessful attempt to extinguish the flames, Deputy Sorenson and civilian Michael Kaminski tried to remove Rossier from the burning car. Kaminski held Rossier’s upper body while Deputy Sorenson worked at freeing Rossier’s trapped legs. Once Rossier’s legs had been freed, Deputy Sorenson and Kaminski removed Rossier from the still burning car and carried him to safety. At the side of the road, Deputy Sorenson immediately began a medical assessment and attended to Rossier’s injuries. Portage County ambulance took over medical care and brought Rossier to the Stevens Point airport, where they met the Spirit of Marshfield emergency helicopter. Rossier was air lifted to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Marshfield, WI.
Although Roche Rossier has not fully recovered from the injuries he sustained that November night, he certainly would have died in his burning vehicle if not for the selfless actions of Michael Kaminski and Deputy Kevin Sorenson.
August Erdmann became a firefighter for the City of Milwaukee in 1964, and retired as Chief of the Department in 1996. During his 32 years of service, Erdmann had been a witness to, and part of, many great incidents. Chief Erdmann has many commendations in his file; among them are some for having saved lives from within burning buildings. However, throughout his years on the job, he had become increasingly disturbed by the number of fire deaths that were occurring every year. After becoming Chief in 1989, Chief Erdmann decided to address the problem in a very direct manner. He conceived an idea and it was titled Project FOCUS or Firefighters Out Creating Urban Safety.
In reviewing then-recent fire related deaths, it was found that most of the citizen deaths occurred as a result of not having or not maintaining smoke detectors. The most affected areas of the community were mapped out and project FOCUS was put to work.
The unique concept of this program is that it uses fire department vehicles staffed by on-duty firefighters for the purpose of fire prevention and education. Firefighters go door-to-door to install smoke detectors and change batteries where needed, hand out information and discuss fire safety. This is a service for the public and they can choose to receive this assistance or not.
Since the introduction of this program, fire related deaths in Milwaukee have decreased considerably. In the first eleven years of the program, only one fire related death has taken place in a FOCUS home. The exact number of lives that have been saved by this program is not known, but it is safe to say that Chief August Erdmann’s project FOCUS has been very successful and should be aggressively copied by other communities.
8:47 a.m., September 11, 2001. The first of a premeditated series of attacks against the United States of America took place as a hijacked commercial airplane was flown directly into the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City. Fifteen minutes later, a second hijacked airplane was similarly flown into the South Tower. A third plane had been overtaken by terrorist and flown into the Pentagon. In the skies over Ohio, a fourth airplane was hijacked and was headed towards Washington D.C. when the passengers heroically fought back, took the flight control away from the hijackers, and crashed the plane into a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
From within the catastrophically damaged buildings of the World Trade Center, thousands of people from many nations struggled to escape the withering towers and reach safety. While these thousands of men and women pushed toward the exits, they were met by hundreds going into and up towards the inferno which was raging overhead.
These brave souls were members of the New York Fire Department, Police Department, and the Port Authority Police. They brought with them air packs, tools, radios, and in many cases just the badge pinned to their shirts. One item they all carried was a duty to protect and serve, and with that, the faith that binds the brothers and sisters of the protective services.
In just over an hour, both 110 story towers collapsed, severely damaging several other buildings around them, many of which later fell. This left a debris field of unimaginable proportions. Then began a search for survivors and a recovery effort, the enormity of which has never been undertaken before. Members of these three organizations conducted a search through “The Pile,” which lasted for many months in an effort to bring home as many of their brothers and sisters as was humanly possible.
This attack on America took the lives of over 3,000 people. Of this number, 343 were members of FDNY, 23 were members of NYPD, and 37 were members of the PAPD.
Today, September 13, 2002, we are honorarily inducting into the State of Wisconsin Fire and Police Hall of Fame, the members of these three organizations who selflessly and bravely responded to the World Trade Center site in both the initial rescue and the subsequent recovery effort.
In the late afternoon hours of March 24, 2015, Trooper Trevor Casper of the Wisconsin State Patrol located the vehicle of an armed and dangerous suspect the FBI and Michigan authorities had been searching for in relation to numerous bank robberies and a homicide.
Wisconsin State Patrol
Milwaukee Fire Department
Manitowoc Fire Department
Town of Campbell Fire Department