Editor's Note: The United States Fire Administration has reported that Firefighter Whittaker apparently suffered a heart attack while driving a department apparatus, causing it to leave the roadway. According to the USFA, none of the other crew members were injured.
HARKERS ISLAND, N.C.-- In less than 10 minutes Tuesday morning, a call to a house fire on Harkers Island turned into a tragedy that shook Carteret County's firefighting community.
Robert Whittaker, 55, a volunteer with Marshallberg Fire Department, died while responding to the fire, which investigators believe was arson, said Carteret County Fire Marshal Eddie Lewis.
"Carteret County has been so fortunate over the years to not have something like this happen," Lewis said. "It's been a shock."
Marshallberg and Otway firefighters were called out to assist Harkers Island Fire Department with the 12:47 a.m. fire, and Whittaker pulled out of the fire station driving a support and rescue truck and headed to the scene of the blaze.
At 12:54 a.m., just 3.9 miles from the fire at 118 Chadwick Lane, the truck Whittaker was driving went off the left side of the road and struck a tree, Lewis said.
The cause of Whittaker's death was unknown Tuesday, and circumstances of the accident are still being investigated, the N.C. Highway Patrol said.
Trooper Shane Powell said it's uncertain what caused the accident, but the truck crossed the center line of Harkers Island Road, traveled across the left lane, struck a ditch and then hit a tree.
Powell said there were reports that Whittaker had a history of heart problems, but it won't be known whether that was a contributing factor until autopsy results are complete.
Marshallberg Fire Chief Bryan Blake and volunteer firefighter Jeff Heyland also were in the vehicle but were not seriously injured, the Highway Patrol reported.
Whittaker, a resident of the Gloucester community, had been a member of the Marshallberg Fire Department for about three months and in the fire service for about 10 years, his fellow firefighters said.
"We're very sad by the loss," said Chris Judy, vice president of the department's board of directors.
Judy said a critical incident stress debriefing was planned to help department members involved in the incident deal with their emotions.
A memorial service for Whittaker will be held at 2 p.m. Friday at Munden Funeral Home in Morehead City. He is survived by his wife, Judy Whittaker, and three grown children.
Meanwhile, Lewis said, multiple agencies are involved in efforts to find out who started the fire to which Whittaker and other firefighters were responding.
"Our hearts and prayers go out to the family, and we are working the fire scene as hard as we can," he said.
Joining Lewis and the county fire marshal's office in the investigation are the State Bureau of Investigation, Carteret County Emergency Services office, Carteret County Sheriff's Department and the state fire marshal's office, which is called anytime there is a firefighter death.
Anyone with information about the Harkers Island fire is asked to call the N.C. Arson Awareness Council at (800) 334-3000. Rewards are available for information leading to the arrest of the person responsible, and information received is kept confidential.
Republished with permission of The Jacksonville Daily News.