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Assistant fire chief honored as a hero

March 14, 2011|By JENNIFER FITCH | waynesboro@herald-mail.com

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. — “It’s what firemen do.”

Chambersburg Assistant Fire Chief Norman Reitz’s remarks to the town council Monday were brief after the elected officials recognized his actions in a Feb. 14 blaze. Others did less to downplay Reitz’s work, with Council President William McLaughlin saying the firefighter “truly fits the definition of what a hero is.”

Reitz, 37, pulled two people from a duplex fire on Lincoln Way West.

“I’ve been doing this a long time. ... One (rescue) is extremely heroic in itself, but he did re-enter the house,” said William FitzGerald, Chambersburg’s emergency services chief.

The Chambersburg Borough Council passed a resolution to honor Reitz at its Monday meeting. Reitz’s wife, Kelly, and their children, Laurel and Cooper, joined others in applauding Reitz.

Reitz, who has been with the department 21 years, said he’s been humbled by the community response, including a billboard with his picture on it. He said the magnitude of the events didn’t hit him until days after the fire.

“Now, when I tell the story, I get chills,” Reitz said.

Many Chambersburg-area firefighters were on the scene of an earlier barn fire when the call was dispatched for a duplex fire with people trapped. Reitz saw fire in the back of the homes when he arrived at 270/272 Lincoln Way West.

Heavy smoke obscured Reitz’s sight when he entered what he later learned was a kitchen and found the stairs to the second floor.

“I can remember my two hands on the steps and thinking, ‘I found them,’” Reitz said.

He knocked out a window at the top of the stairs and heard a moan to his left. Reitz dragged a 14-year-old girl, who was treated for smoke inhalation, to a window, but he couldn’t get crews’ attention for a ladder.

Reitz started to take her down the stairs and was assisted by another firefighter. He went back inside and up the stairs, where he found a woman in a room to his right.

“She said, ‘Help me,’” Reitz recounted. “I said, ‘I got you.’”

After taking her from the home, Reitz, who had run out of oxygen in his tank, wanted to search the home again because of an erroneous report of three people trapped inside. Other firefighters told him they had cleared the house.

“The building not only had heavy smoke and fire, it had pack-rat conditions,” FitzGerald said.

Police charged a 13-year-old boy with arson in connection with the fire. Pennsylvania State Police Fire Marshal Jeffrey Sarver said in an earlier interview that two smoke alarms tied into the electrical system had been disconnected and the batteries were removed from another.

“There weren’t any working smoke detectors in the house,” he said.

After the presentation for Reitz, fire officials talked to the borough council about their initiative to ensure borough homes all have working smoke detectors. Deputy Chief William Dubbs said too often people remove batteries from their smoke detectors or disconnect them.

Newer smoke detectors have 10-year, lithium batteries and are sealed shut, Dubbs said.

“Smoke alarms don’t save lives unless properly installed and maintained,” he said.

The department is hoping to receive a $70,000 Federal Emergency Management Agency grant to install 1,000 smoke detectors with lithium batteries, 150 alarms for the hearing-impaired, and 500 carbon-monoxide detectors in homes, FitzGerald said.

Councilman Glenn Manns said his older sister and her 17-year-old son died in a Christmas 1989 fire.

“I think it’s a very important program,” he said of installing smoke detectors.

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