January-February 2022

An unforgettable fire

Forty years after a firefighter rescued a child—and another firefighter fell nearly to his death—some memories blur, but others snap sharply into focus

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Kensington volunteer firefighter Robert Saulpaugh carries 1-year-old Rocky out of a fire at the Rock Creek Terrace apartments in Rockville on an October night in 1981. Photo by Mike M. Ahlers

There’s a mind game we all play, and it goes like this:

Your house is on fire. Everyone is safely outside except you. As the fire spreads, you have time to grab one thing.

Just one.

So what do you value most among your material possessions?

What do you save from the flames?

For most of my life, the answer was easy. I’d save a framed black and white photo that I took a long time ago—a photo that is hanging, conveniently, near my front door and, coincidentally, is of someone saving someone from a fire.

I took the photo just minutes after midnight on Oct. 28, 1981—40 years ago. And though I’ve taken uncountable photos in the intervening years, it remains my favorite, ever since I saw the image slowly reveal itself in a tray of sloshing chemicals in a newspaper darkroom.

Even then, near the beginning of my career, I realized I wouldn’t get many photos like it.

My father, himself a former newspaperman, evidently concurred when he joked, “Did you hand that child to that fireman?”

That child—nearly 2 years old, bright-eyed and Gerber cute, hastily swaddled in a white blanket, his bare foot exposed to the cold night air, his bare arm wrapped around the firefighter.

And that fireman—young, stoic, smoke-stained.

Capping it off—though it may have escaped my father’s attention—was the Station 18 shield on the firefighter’s helmet, the insignia of the old redbrick firehouse in Glenmont where a few years earlier I had volunteered as a cadet. There, I had briefly considered abandoning my hopes of becoming a newspaper reporter to become a firefighter instead.

Readers of The Montgomery Journal would say the picture was worth a thousand words. They called it “iconic” and said it perfectly captured the events of that night. But no one picture could’ve captured the many heroic and chaotic, convoluted and lamentable events of that night.

“It’s the call I’ll never forget,” says Robert “Bob” Saulpaugh, four decades removed from the 21-year-old firefighter in the photo. He remembers it not only because of the image that would immortalize him but because other events that night would stick in his brain, including a dark moment firefighters refer to simply as “the fall.”

At roughly the same time I was taking the photo of Saulpaugh walking out the front entrance of the high-rise clutching a child named Rocky, Saulpaugh’s good friend, firefighter David Flowers, was crawling down a smoke-filled corridor on the building’s 12th floor. Inexplicably, Flowers stood up and took a step.

And he plunged down an open elevator shaft, falling 14 floors.

Even with the passage of 40 years, the events of that night in 1981 remain a touchstone for firefighters and residents who were there. The fire marked the first time many of the firefighters would so fully confront the darkest possible consequences of their chosen profession. They remember well the sad and sober atmosphere at Station 18 as they awaited word about the fate of David Flowers.

Eight firefighters in all were taken to area hospitals, and a half-dozen police officers who assisted in the evacuation were treated for smoke inhalation. All told, about two dozen people were injured, the most severely burned being a 26-year-old mother, Cynthia Nugent. Her son Delondo, who was also burned, today says the fire profoundly affected him, even though he was only 6. It has given him humility, he says, and a hard-won perspective on the fleeting nature of life. “You understand how easily your time can be up,” he tells me.

Rocky and his family survived the fire, but four decades later, they had no desire to revisit it.

Time has given clarity to some of the events. But it has only deepened the mystery around some aspects of the fire, such as who set the blaze. Montgomery County’s top fire investigator at the time, Lt. Carvel Harding, says he knew who started the blaze—one in a series of fires at the apartment building—but he needed proof that would stand up in court. Proof never came.

David Flowers, another Kensington firefighter, recuperating in what was then Montgomery General Hospital in Olney. Photo by Mike M. Ahlers

David Flowers survived his 14-story fall.

He still doesn’t know how.

And he still doesn’t have any recollection of this defining event in his life.

The son of a bricklayer and a homemaker, Flowers was 15 when he joined the Kensington Volunteer Fire Department as a “junior firefighter.” He was captivated by the large trucks and the activity at Station 18 in Glenmont, and he absorbed its lingo, culture and secrets like a sponge.

Junior firefighters couldn’t do much. Jim Dimopoulos, a predecessor of his who became a cadet at age 13 and was known as “Greek,” recalls climbing on fire trucks and pretending to make radio calls, and racing to fires on his bike by following the trail of water left by the station’s leaky pumpers.

Flowers joined four years after Greek and remembers countless trips to McDonald’s to get firefighters their meals. That was fun, but the real thrills came when the house siren would blare. Volunteers would race to the firehouse, abandoning their cars at the intersection if they were stuck at the light. As they ran to the fire trucks, “they’d point to their car, still running, keys in it, door open,” Flowers recalls.

Still too young to drive legally, Flowers would jump into the cars and park them after the fire trucks roared by. When the firefighters returned, they would shout for the cadets. The cadets, expecting thanks, instead got orders for Big Macs and fries.

“No respect!” Flowers says with a laugh.

When I joined their ranks as a cadet at 17, the large contingent of cadets was already a close-knit group. Now older, with driver’s licenses and only a year away from becoming full-blown volunteers, the junior firefighters were becoming a group of hell-raisers. The cadets worked together and partied together, and if there wasn’t excitement to be found around the firehouse, we would create our own, pulling pranks or staging fire drills—racing down streets in an attempt to impress some cadet’s girlfriend.

But as we got near the magic age of 18, we also began to focus on the job ahead.

Firefighter Saulpaugh attends to young Rocky on the back step of a fire truck. Photo by Mike M. Ahlers

Instructors would weigh us down with heavy running coats, leather helmets, cumbersome masks and oxygen bottles, and have us crawl in pitch black firehouse attics or bunk rooms searching for “bodies.” Amid the shouting and the chaos, the drills exposed the difficulty of saving yourself from the imaginary flames, much less saving someone else.

It was during first aid training at Station 5—the department’s motherhouse in Kensington—that I got some of the best life instruction I’ve ever received. The teacher, a seasoned firefighter, was teaching CPR and gave us a scenario that wasn’t in the Red Cross manual.

“What do you do,” he asked, “if you’re giving a person CPR and they puke in your mouth?”

The very question sickened me. Does that really happen? I wondered. But beyond that, I didn’t have a clue. What do you do? What would I do? The question haunted me.

“Puke back on them,” he said matter of factly. “And get back to work.”

Soon after his 18th birthday, Flowers became a full-fledged volunteer firefighter. He remembers the first fire in which he served as the tip of the firefighting spear.

“I was scared s—less,” he says. “But I took the hose in, and the officer backed me up, and I put the fire out. And from that point on I figured I could do this. Because I was scared to death, but I didn’t stop.”

Flowers thrived, earning live-in status at Station 18, working days installing gutters and downspouts, and spending nights on a firehouse cot, running on calls whenever the bells rang. Station 18 became his official mailing address.

Cadet Robert Saulpaugh became a full-fledged volunteer on his 18th birthday, three years after Flowers. He also remembers his first fire and the exhilaration of the job. During business hours, he worked as a clerk at a Bethesda Safeway. Off-hours, he lived his passion, running calls from Station 18.

On the evening of Oct. 27, 1981, I got word of a shooting at O’Brien’s Pit Barbecue in Rockville. Two men had forced their way into the closed restaurant and one of them shot and killed Michael O’Callahan, the 45-year-old night manager, before fleeing with cash from the till.

I talked to police and bystanders, took photos of an ambulance pulling away and headed home, since my newspaper’s deadline had passed.

On the way, my car’s scanner beeped with news of a fire at 12630 Veirs Mill Road—the high-rise Rock Creek Terrace apartments.

That same evening, volunteer firefighters Flowers and Saulpaugh had stopped at the Stained Glass Pub in Glenmont to pick up a pizza. Back at the firehouse, Saulpaugh plopped the pizza on a table. Flowers was grabbing a soda when the fire bells rang. Dinner would have to wait.

Mario Reda Jr., then a Kensington VFD medic, carries Rocky after the rescue from the Rock Creek Terrace apartments. Photo by Mike M. Ahlers

The two jumped into separate trucks and headed to the scene.

By the time they arrived, firefighters from Station 21 were already in the building. Flowers’ team headed toward the fire, while Saulpaugh and two rookie firefighters stayed outside with his truck.

On his truck’s radio, Saulpaugh could hear in the stress in the firefighters’ voices that conditions inside the building were bad. Frustrated by his inability to reach the upper floors with his truck’s ladder, he remembers telling the two rookies, “Let’s go. We’re going in.”

I remember sitting at a red light on Veirs Mill Road—a right turn would take me home; going straight would take me to the fire—when intensifying commotion on the scanner made my decision for me.
The red light was excruciatingly long. I looked around. It was midnight, and there wasn’t a car in sight. I ran the light.

A minute later, I was at the apartment building. I headed to the front door and shot three quick photos of police officers helping an old woman, a towel pressed to her mouth. Right behind them I spotted a sweaty firefighter carrying a cute kid. I grabbed a shot and took several more as he carried the child to the rear step of a fire truck and tended to him.

The scene was dark, noisy and chaotic, and I can’t remember exactly what I was thinking. But then again, I know exactly what I was thinking. I was praying to the news gods that my pictures were in focus.

In the summer and fall of 1981, the Rock Creek Terrace high-rise had been plagued by a series of arsons and false alarms. Investigators later would say the fires appeared to have been aimed at the building itself, not the residents. But this fire got away.

The arsonist piled debris in a freight elevator, doused it with flammable liquids and ignited it. The cab rose to the 12th floor of the 17-story building, and when the door opened, smoke and flames spewed out, filling the long corridor with toxic fumes and setting fire to adjacent apartments.

Over time, the searing heat in the elevator car burned through its half-inch steel cables and the car fell to the subbasement, where it continued to burn.

Firefighters from nearby Station 21 arrived quickly and started evacuating the residents and searching for the source of the fire, which oddly was now in two locations.

David Flowers at his home in Cambridge, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Mounted on the garage wall are the helmet and oxygen tank he was wearing when he fell 14 stories down an elevator shaft. Photo by Mike M. Ahlers

When Saulpaugh got to the 12th floor, the corridor was black with smoke and chaotic. “I can remember the kid. The mother and the father were coming out of the apartment, and they were both pretty well smoked out, and the kid was, too,” he says. “The mother was tripping over things.” So Saulpaugh took hold of the boy and led the family down the stairwell to safety.

Firefighter Ed Klumph, 23, also was on the 12th floor. He was trying to evacuate apartments when he met Flowers, whom he did not recognize because of his mask. The smoke was thick, and together the two crawled and knocked on doors. In an interview shortly after the fire, Klumph said he warned Flowers about the open elevator shaft, but Flowers apparently didn’t hear him.

“The next thing I knew he got up and walked right through it like it was an open door,” he said.

In the basement, firefighters David Kline and Jack Jarnagin were busy putting out the elevator fire when they heard something drop. A leather fire helmet rolled out of the doorway at their feet.

The two ran outside and shouted to colleague Scott Grove, who was manning the hook and ladder truck, that a firefighter had fallen. Grove radioed for help.

Standing near his truck, Saulpaugh heard someone on the radio ask who was wearing Gear 257—the number on the helmet that had rolled out of the burning elevator. Saulpaugh, who was wearing Gear 256, knew exactly who had 257—his buddy Dave.

Flowers landed on a beam that supported a subbasement elevator door. The impact dented his steel oxygen bottle and his new helmet. It knocked him unconscious, broke his jaw and fractured two ribs, one of which punctured a lung. It bruised his heart and caused internal bleeding in his chest and abdomen. And it didn’t stop there. Water being used to put out the fire created steam, which scalded him, causing third-degree burns over 20% of his body. Luckily, he missed—by inches—landing where a metal pipe would have skewered him.

Wedged into the wreckage, he couldn’t be treated delicately. Firefighters tied a rope around him, hoisted him to the opening and made way for the paramedics.

I ran to the back of the building just in time to get a photo of a stretcher being loaded onto an ambulance. I couldn’t see the battered firefighter and didn’t know who it was. But the other firefighters’ grief clearly showed that the injured man was one of their own.

A few firefighters vented their anguish, throwing their helmets to the ground and cursing. Some gathered together to hug.

I stood alongside a freelance photographer named Mark trying to get a clear shot of the remarkable scene. But the unmistakable silhouette of one firefighter blocked our view. Mark—I am referring to him only by his first name for reasons that will soon become clear—set out to correct that.

“Hey, Greek! Get outta the way!” he yelled.

The shout didn’t have its intended effect.

Dimopoulos and the other firefighters looked at Mark, and he became the focus of their emotions, which turned to anger. The firefighters dropped their embrace. Greek and another firefighter strode up to us quickly and purposefully. When they got to Mark, one reached out, grabbed Mark’s long lens and broke it off the camera.

I was surprised by the attack, but then again I wasn’t. The firefighters had just put their friend into an ambulance. They believed he was either dying or dead. Emotions were raw and untested.

As a journalist, I thought Mark had violated one of the cardinal rules of photojournalism. Instead of capturing the scene, he had changed it. And he had done it in the crudest way possible—by shouting an order to a grieving person. That not only violated journalism ethics, that also violated basic human decency.

And as a result, I hadn’t captured a photo of the heartrending scene in front of me. I felt like breaking his lens myself.

“We didn’t think he was going to make it,” Dimopoulos told me recently, sitting in the dining room of his Poolesville home. “When we left that fire, we thought we lost one of our guys.”

When doctors at the University of Maryland Shock Trauma Center were informed that Flowers had fallen about a dozen floors, they reportedly asked if that meant a dozen feet, according to a news report at the time. Falls of more than 100 feet, after all, are not survivable. And though Flowers’ injuries put him in critical condition, he was alive.

“No,” the doctors were told—he had fallen at least a dozen stories.

Firefighters are still uncertain how Flowers survived. Perhaps much of the impact was absorbed by the steel air tank on his back, or his helmet.

And there is the possibility that Flowers’ right leg became tangled during the fall. His right boot had been stripped from his foot. Perhaps he ricocheted off the walls.

Flowers didn’t know how he survived—but he had a theory. “I think somebody upstairs didn’t want me to die right yet. Otherwise it would have been easy to take my life,” he said when I visited him in a hospital weeks after the fall.

He said virtually the same thing when I saw him recently.

At his North Carolina home, Saulpaugh, now 61, recalls what happened after he heard the radio call about Gear 257.

Saulpaugh says he went to the site where other rescuers were attending to Flowers. It was a highly charged scene.

A photographer, Saulpaugh tells me, was being very pushy.

“He’s in there taking pictures of Dave in the ambulance, all cut up and that. I told him [the photographer], ‘Outta the way,’ because he was getting in the way. And he came back, and another time. … He did it three times, taking pictures of a bloody fireman on his deathbed.

“So I got his camera and—phew!—broke it.”

“You broke the camera?” I ask Saulpaugh.

“That was I,” Saulpaugh says flatly.

Saulpaugh didn’t know that I was standing next to the photographer at the time. And I didn’t know that Saulpaugh was the firefighter who snapped off Mark’s lens. It was dark, tense and quick.

I tell Saulpaugh that his memory is flawed. I don’t know what happened before I arrived at the back of the building, I tell him, but at the time Saulpaugh broke the camera, Mark and I were standing side by side, out of the way of the firefighters. He wasn’t blocking anyone. That isn’t what upset the firefighters. It was Mark’s ill-timed, ill-considered shout that prompted the confrontation.

Saulpaugh is adamant that the photographer had been “pushy” and had gotten in the way. He says that when the fire chief later questioned him about the incident, he admitted breaking the lens and said that under the same circumstances, he would do it again.

“It was a tough night, man,” he says.

It took Flowers a couple of days to regain consciousness. He awoke to find his parents at his bedside, and they told him an unbelievable story. Drugged and groggy, it took him awhile to absorb it.

A week or so later, he was transferred from Shock Trauma to Montgomery General Hospital (now MedStar Montgomery Medical Center) in Olney for treatment of his burns.

“That was a fantastic day. I wanted to get out of there so bad,” Flowers recalls. Firefighters at Station 18 volunteered to transfer Flowers, but instead of taking him directly to the hospital, they swung by Station 18, where his friends crowded the ambulance and joked with him about the fall. Flowers’ broken jaw was wired closed.

“The hospital’s calling, [asking] …‘Where’s your ambulance? Where’s your ambulance?’ Oh, it was great. They were mad!”

At Montgomery General, Flowers was speaking with difficulty when I went to interview him. But he said, with professional firefighter cool, “I’m ready to get back to it.”

I quoted him in my story, but I had my doubts. So did Greek, who wondered if Flowers could ever pass the firefighter physical again.

One or two or maybe three years later, I was driving on Georgia Avenue when I looked at a passing fire truck. There in the bucket was David Flowers. I lost my professional reporter cool and felt overjoyed. And I wondered, given his 14-story fall, where David had landed along that thin line that separates bravery from insanity.

Flowers got a doctor’s clearance nearly a year after the fall. In time, he was hired as a paid county firefighter and was assigned to Station 21—the firehouse next to Rock Creek Terrace. On his first day, he was sent to the high-rise. The call itself was not memorable, but Flowers remembers a county dispatcher, violating protocols, jokingly asking firefighters to check on Dave Flowers.

Over time, calls to Rock Creek Terrace became routine. One day, while taking an older woman out of the building on a stretcher, his colleague noted that they were descending the same freight elevator shaft in which Flowers had fallen.

Flowers put on a show, acting as if he were in the throes of a seizure. His partner busted out laughing.

“That poor old lady,” Flowers says. “She must’ve thought we were lunatics.”

One evening this past summer, I track down Mark, the freelance photographer. He tells me he has absolutely no recollection of the 1981 fire. A series of surgeries has robbed him of large fragments of his memory.

Mark believes, however, that he would not have impeded the actions of working firefighters in 1981, having learned by then, he says, how to do his job without interfering with theirs. I know he wasn’t physically interfering when his camera was broken. I was standing next to him.

Based on my description, Mark says, he could have had the firefighter charged with assault or restraint of trade. And he bemoaned the many times police or firefighters ordered him away from accident or crime scenes, only to call him the next day for copies of his photographs. Before hanging up, he adds: “If you see that firefighter, tell him he owes me a camera.”

Forty years later, David Flowers still has no recollection of the fall. “Doctors had always told me that maybe you’ll remember one day, maybe not. And I still don’t remember,” he says when I visit his home in Cambridge on the Eastern Shore.

But it changed his life, nonetheless.

“I’m as happy as I can be,” says Flowers, now 64. “I have been for a long, long time.”

Flowers says his brush with death helped clarify some things in his life, as he realized he was given a second chance that is denied to so many others. He has a daily reminder of his plunge. The prefix of his email address is “Fall14.”

After the fire, Flowers sued the owners of the high-rise, saying they were aware of the string of arsons but did not take adequate measures to prevent the fire. (Rock Creek’s owners declined to comment for this article.) He sued the elevator company, saying the elevator should have been designed to withstand a fire.

Flowers’ attorneys fought to the state’s highest court. But the courts concluded that a legal doctrine called the Fireman’s Rule precludes firefighters from getting damages if they are injured while doing their job, regardless of whether any parties are negligent. At least a half-dozen states have tossed out the Fireman’s Rule. A state Senate panel in January 2020 considered legislation that would have eliminated the rule in Maryland. Legal opinions in the Flowers case were mentioned during testimony. But the bill never came up for a vote—a victim of the COVID-19 pandemic, one legislative staffer told me, which shuttered the General Assembly early for the first time since the Civil War.

Even if the Fireman’s Rule had not been a factor in Maryland law, it’s impossible to say whether Flowers would have been able to prove negligence to a Maryland judge or jury.

Jim Dimopoulos, aka Greek, is now 66. He says he thought about quitting firefighting in the weeks following the fall. Ultimately, he decided to stay, becoming a career firefighter for Montgomery County. He retired after 35 years on the job. In all those years, Dimopoulos says, his Greek immigrant father never acknowledged the work he did. Not on that night in October 1981, when he almost lost a colleague. Not on Sept. 11, 2001, when he lost 343 of them. Not on the day he retired.

That changed this past February, just before his father died.

“We were at Holy Cross Hospital, and the nurse says, ‘Oh, George, your son was a fireman. Were you a fireman, too?’ ” Greek recalls.

“He said, ‘No, no, no. My son’s a fireman. He was the best.’

“The only time in over 35 years in the fire department my father ever acknowledges anything about the fire department, ever. He never understood the traumas and the fires and the stress—any of that.

“When he said, ‘He was the best,’ I lost it.”

Robert Saulpaugh at his home in North Carolina. Photo by Mike M. Ahlers

As for stoic Robert Saulpaugh, he left the fire service after more than 20 years as a volunteer. He moved to the Piedmont Triad area of North Carolina, where he’s been buying, renting, selling and flipping houses. He remains close with Flowers, and they often talk on the phone.

As I was taking Saulpaugh’s photo recently, I could see that his black hair has grayed and his smooth face has wrinkled. But he hasn’t lost his edge.

When I’m taking photos of people, it’s not uncommon for self-conscious individuals to remark, “I hope I don’t break your camera.” So when Saulpaugh says something similar—“I won’t break your camera”—I give him my rote reply: “You look fine.”

“No,” he says. “I mean it literally.”

Forty years is a long, long time.

The day after the O’Brien’s Pit Barbecue robbery, Raymond L. Offutt, 24, was arrested and charged with the manager’s murder. Offutt wore a mask during the heist to conceal his face. But his white shoes gave him away. He was known for wearing pointy-toed white shoes while working as a dishwasher at O’Brien’s. Offutt pleaded guilty and received a life sentence. Now 64, he remains in a state prison in Hagerstown.

Lt. Carvel Harding, now retired as the county’s top fire investigator, says investigators conducted countless stakeouts at Rock Creek Terrace. “We lived down there for a long time,” he says.

Investigators developed a suspect and brought him in for a lie detector test. “There’s no doubt in my mind we had the right guy,” Harding says. But prosecutors felt they did not have enough evidence to prevail at trial, he says. Lie detector tests are generally not admissible in court. A suspect was never charged.

Delondo Nugent, now 46, was 6 years old when he was awakened, led down a dark and narrow corridor and hustled into a neighbor’s apartment. It was crowded with other neighbors, and he remembers “the look of terror in their eyes when they saw me.”

“I looked down to my left arm and I saw the blisters,” he tells me recently. “That’s when I felt the pain.”

Nugent and his mother were among the most seriously injured of the residents, with burns to their arms, shoulders and feet. But both recovered. “It made me appreciative of having all five senses, being able to walk and having a normal life,” Delondo says.

As for Rocky, the sweet boy in the photo…I made multiple attempts to contact him through his family. Rocky’s mother at first tells me she remembers the fire “like it was yesterday,” but later the family says it wants no part in this story.

There’s a saying: History doesn’t repeat itself, but it sure does rhyme.

In 2017, two firefighters scaled a cellphone tower in Charlotte, North Carolina, to rescue two men trapped there. As one firefighter rappelled down the 130-foot tower clutching a worker in his arms, TV news cameras caught the action.

Dark and distant, it’s hard to identify the firefighter making the rescue. But it made retired firefighter Robert Saulpaugh proud nonetheless.

The stoic firefighter was his son.

Mike M. Ahlers of Silver Spring has worked as a journalist for more than 40 years. He is a freelance assignment editor for CBS News in Washington.