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Firefighter was veteran at age 22

January 22, 2003|by STACEY DANZUSO

chambersburg@herald-mail.com

Keith Hess knew he wanted to fight fires from the time he was a youngster.

When he was 14 - the earliest age allowed - the Franklin County, Pa., youth joined the West End Fire and Rescue Co. in Shippensburg as a junior firefighter, said Shippensburg Fire Chief Jamie White.

After eight years of distinguishing himself as an officer and an emergency medical technician, Hess, 22, died Monday night fighting a house fire in neighboring Huntingdon County, Pa., when the chimney and second floor of the structure collapsed on him and two other firefighters.

Assistant Chief Cory Connelly, 30, and firefighter Dave Ocker, 20, both of Cumberland Valley Hose Co. No 2 of Shippensburg, were treated at Chambersburg Hospital and released.

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Franklin County Coroner Jeff Conner said Hess suffocated.

Firefighters and friends remembered Hess Tuesday as a dedicated friend, volunteer and employee.

"He never said much. He was always listening and seeing what he could learn," White said. "He never stopped developing. He wanted to be the best."

White said Hess had a "baby face," but he had watched him mature from a teenager into a young man with a bright future ahead of him.

"We will miss him forever. He will always be remembered and loved by everybody in the fire service," White said.

"His dedication to training and professionalism led to numerous recognitions with West End Fire and Rescue, including honors as Rookie of the Year in 1997 and Firefighter of the Year and officership as a lieutenant in 2001," said West End Deputy Chief Jeff Coombe, who became emotional at times while reading a prepared statement Tuesday afternoon.

Hess, who lived with his parents, Robert L. and Judy D. Hess, at 9897 Possum Hollow Road in Shippensburg, was a paid emergency medical technician and firefighter for the Fannett Metal Fire Department in Dry Run, Pa., and a volunteer EMT-firefighter for West End Fire and Rescue Co. He was on duty at the Fannett Metal department Tuesday when he responded to a structure fire at 246 Hotel Road in Blairs Mills, Pa.

The call came at 3:01 p.m. Monday for a single-family dwelling fire. The Fannett Metal Fire Department was closest to the fire scene.

About two hours later, during salvage and overhaul operations, Hess and two other firefighters were working on the first floor when a chimney in the center of the structure collapsed, taking the second floor with it, onto the three firefighters, Conner said.

One firefighter was able to get out on his own, while the other two had to be rescued.

The two men were trapped by debris for about 10 minutes before they were freed, according to Cumberland Valley Hose Co. Fire Chief Scott A. Kitner.

Conner described the efforts of the firefighters and emergency medical services personnel on the scene as "heroic."

An autopsy performed Tuesday morning determined Hess died of compressional asphyxia. Conner said Hess was trapped between the floor he was on and the debris and bricks from the second floor that crashed down, which stopped his breathing.

The fire remained under investigation and a cause had not been determined Tuesday.

The investigation was a joint effort of the Franklin County Coroner's Office, the Pennsylvania State Police Crime Unit, Huntingdon County, and the Pennsylvania State Police Fire Marshals in Hollidaysburg, Pa.

More than 100 firefighters from Franklin, Cumberland, Juniata, Fulton and Huntingdon counties responded to the blaze, according to officials.

The building destroyed in the fire is owned by Kimberly Burdge, of Blairs Mills, Pa., according to Pennsylvania State Police in Huntingdon County.

Firefighters were called back to the scene throughout Monday night and Tuesday morning to put out several small fires that rekindled, officials said.

Through Conner, the Hess family made the following statement Tuesday: "Keith was a wonderful brother, son and grandson. He gave his heart to the fire service."

At age 14, Hess began attending in-house drills and started the training to become certified as a firefighter and emergency medical technician. He was an active junior member and was unanimously accepted as a senior member following his 18th birthday in 1999, Coombe said.

"West End Fire and Rescue, the Fannett Metal Fire Department and all that had the pleasure of knowing and working with Lt. Hess regarded him as a great friend, firefighter, officer and employee," Coombe said. "Lt. Hess will be greatly missed as a brother of both West End Fire and Rescue and the Fannett Metal Fire Department."

Hess was a 1998 graduate of Shippensburg Area Senior High School. He loved to hunt and fixed up an older Dodge truck that he drove around, White said.

White said Hess' goal was to be a career firefighter.

"Getting hired by Fannett Metal was just the first step. There is no doubt in my mind it was the first step for a much greater career for him," he said.

Firefighters at the Fannett Metal Fire Department Tuesday evening declined to comment.

Fire officials on Tuesday could recall only a handful of other Franklin County firefighters who died in the line of duty in the last four decades. All of those were the result of heart attacks.

Funeral arrangements are by the Fogelsanger Bricker Funeral Home in Shippensburg, Pa.

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