Fire captain leaves behind cool-under-pressure legacy in Danvers

Danvers fire Capt. Robert T. Flachbart is retiring after 33 years at the Danvers Fire Department. Flachbart was respected by his colleagues for his calm demeanor during emergencies and his dedication to the profession.


(single page view)
(view as multiple pages)By Jill Harmacinski
Staff writer




DANVERS A propane truck with 9,000 gallons of volatile fuel was ablaze on a cold February night. Two dozen people were trapped in a burning boarding house in downtown Beverly on a blustery July day. And two weeks before Christmas, a small plane nosedived into a street curb, killing its passengers and scattering still-wrapped holiday gifts amid a Danvers neighborhood.

For more than three decades, among the flames, sirens, tears and panic, Danvers fire Capt. Robert T. Flachbart was there.

And he was calm. Always calm.

"No matter what was going on, whatever we responded to, that's what I always remembered, 'Bring calm to the chaos. If you lose your cool, if you get excited, your troops will be excited,'" Flachbart, 57, said recently.

His unruffled disposition at the most horrific of fire scenes and his dedication to his profession became Flachbart's legacy.

"I was always impressed when I heard him on the radio," said fire Lt. David Deluca, a co-worker and friend for the past 30 years. "He was always very calm and he knew his job."

At exactly 7:35 yesterday morning, "Flach" walked out of the High Street Fire Department, ending a 33-year career that took him to hundreds of fires, car accidents and medical aid calls. A dozen firefighters lined up and saluted him as he finished his last shift. Flach said he was tremendously flattered, noting the salute is a distinction usually reserved for firefighters' funerals.

Lt. James Brooks Jr., who has worked with Flachbart for the past 16 years, said the captain will be greatly missed.

"He is someone who wanted to do the job the right way," Brooks said. "And in the process, he became a role model ... It just came naturally."

Learning from veterans early on

Born in Marblehead, Flachbart grew up in Middleton, graduating from Masconomet Regional High School in 1966. He served in the U.S. Air Force during Vietnam and started working at the Danvers Fire Department in November 1972. In those days, firefighters learned how to do the job from veteran firefighters, including now-retired Capt. Robert Joyce, a Forest Street resident, who Flachbart said was instrumental in his career.

It was Joyce who trained him to stay cool under pressure.

"That was his big thing," Flachbart said. "He was my captain when I was a firefighter, and I lucked out, because he was extremely knowledgeable."

He said former fire Chief Leland Martin and Deputy Chief Richard Wessell also helped shape his career.

Flachbart's fondness for the Fire Department was reflected both in his attendance record and in department commendations. In his first 17 years on the job, Flachbart used just five sick days. Many years, he boasted perfect attendance an accomplishment he was recognized for by town officials.

He said he never wanted to stay home from work.

"I just didn't want to miss anything," he said, smiling.

Flachbart's trials by fire

Flachbart, along with firefighter Ron Skinner, was commended after the burning propane truck incident in February 1983. Flachbart and Skinner crawled underneath the propane truck on fire off Route 114. They turned off a valve preventing the truck, packed with combustible fuel from exploding.

Flachbart's and Skinner's heroism were later acknowledged by both the chief and Firehouse magazine, a national trade publication.

Flachbart has responded to many major North Shore fires, including the July 4, 1984, Elliott Chambers boarding house fire in Beverly, which killed 15 people, and the massive Lynn fire on Nov. 28, 1981, which destroyed 22 buildings and caused $70 million in damage. He said the giant blaze "was spectacular, hot and scary at the same time."

"There was so much heavy fire. You could stand in the middle of the street and just feel the intense heat. And firefighters were being injured by falling debris," said Flachbart, noting firefighters from all over the state responded. "We were right in the heart of it."

But the job did not always involve flames. Flachbart was also known to don the department's "Sparky" stuffed animal suit and talk to kids about fire safety. He enjoyed teaching and drilling with fellow firefighters, and they in turn were grateful for the lessons he passed on. Firefighters also said Flachbart's knowledge of town buildings and streets was impeccable and he could easily recall why, where and when a fire occurred in town.

"Anytime I needed help, he was always someone I could turn to," Brooks said. "When he leaves, he takes a lot of knowledge and integrity with him."

Flachbart said he loved the job because it was secure, challenging, exciting and above all, an unselfish profession.

But he said his greatest accomplishment was safety. No firefighter under his command was seriously injured. And, as an afterthought, he mentions he was never hurt either.

"I was very fortunate," he said.

He said there's no specific reason he's retiring, other than it's just time to go. He still plans to work, driving a truck for Eastern Propane, and spending time with his kids, Ryan, 25, and Allyson, 18. Retirement will also give him more time to ski and travel.

As he drove away from the fire station yesterday, Flachbart said he "was misty-eyed."

"There were a lot of good times," he said.

Staff reporter Jill Harmacinski can be reached at (978) 338-2652 or by e-mail at jharmacinski@ecnnews.com.