On May 6, 1979, shortly before midnight, a call for a passerby started the Manitowoc Fire Department out to a fire on Chicago Street. Lieutenant Robert Burtard was the officer in charge of Engine 1. Engine 1 was located less than a mile from the scene of the fire.
Arriving on the scene, Lt. Burtard found a two-story apartment house with fire burning in the rear. The enclosed stairway was impassable and the fire was quickly moving toward the front of the apartment. In the front, 69-year-old Mayme Rodney was screaming for help while struggling to keep her head out of the window as heavy black smoke was pouring out around her. The fire had already entered her room and the temperature was rising quickly, bringing with it a real possibility of flashover. Ms. Rodney’s life was in peril and quick action was needed in order to try and save her. The crew of Engine 1 raised a ladder to Ms. Rodney’s window, and Lt. Burtard decided that time for her was critical that he could not afford to get his SCBA from the engine. Lt. Burtard climbed the ladder and as he tried to get ahold of her, she dropped to the floor. Now, Lt. Burtard, without his mask, was forced to lean deep into the black, acrid smoke that was pouring out of the window and try to get ahold of her. Finally, Lt. Burtard was able to grasp the woman and pull her up onto the ladder. With the help of Firefighter Gerald Keehan, Lt. Burtard brought Ms. Rodney down the ladder to the ground below, where they all collapsed.
Ms. Rodney was brought by ambulance to Holy Family Memorial Medical Center where she was treated for smoke inhalation and 2nd degree burns which covered 15% of her body. Ms. Rodney survived her injuries. Lt. Burtard also suffered from smoke inhalation and was taken to the hospital. Lt. Burtard did recover, and continued to work until his retirement in 1994, after an exemplary 32-year career.
Lt. Burtard knew that he could suffer serious injury and long-term damage to his health. It was a case where a firefighter put his life on the line to save a civilian. According to Charles Herzig, who was working at this fire for a private ambulance service, later began working for the Manitowoc Fire Department, eventually becoming chief: “It took great courage, outstanding physical ability, and utter determination to save this lady.” And in the vernacular of the fire service he says, “I have never seen a gutsier move.”