23 Days In October

Many fire departments across the United States hold the distinction of being "first due" at famous landmarks or popular attractions. The Kensington Volunteer Fire Department in Montgomery County, MD, holds a less-coveted distinction - the 109-year-old organization was "first due" at five of the October 2002 Beltway sniper shootings. The tragic 23-day regional spree began and ended within Kensington's coverage area.

Photo by Joseph Louderback
Montgomery County, MD, Fire & Rescue Services District 3 Chief John Gallo served Aspen Hill's District 4 when that area was the epicenter of the sniper shootings.

Kensington volunteers and career firefighters of Montgomery County Fire & Rescue Services, who staff four stations in Aspen Hill, Wheaton and the Kensington area around-the-clock, faced an onslaught of carnage none will soon forget. Station 18, at the corner of Georgia Avenue and Randolph Road, lies just 100 yards from where the three-week long rampage began on the evening of Oct. 2, 2002. At 6:04 P.M., James Martin was killed in the parking lot of Shoppers Food Warehouse. The first shooting "didn't raise any flags," according to Kensington Volunteer Fire Chief Jim Stanton. "We just thought it was a random shooting," said the 60-year-old communications manager, who has been chief of the department's volunteer operation for 12 years.

Kensington's first-due area offers many challenges. Upper-middle-class neighborhoods are linked by busy highways. Growing commercial developments serve government workers who occupy large office buildings. Sprawling apartment complexes house a burgeoning immigrant population. Kensington's Station 5 on Connecticut Avenue is first due at the imposing Mormon Temple overlooking the busy Interstate 495 Beltway.

Founded at the time of the Town of Kensington's incorporation in 1894, the department's first apparatus was a hand-drawn hose reel, two-wheel chemical unit and "several ladders." Roots began in a metal shed and the Kensington Volunteer Fire Department was incorporated by the Maryland State Legislature in 1925. Station 5 opened in 1946, followed by Station 18 in 1953. Station 21 on Viers Mill Road in Rockville opened 10 years later and demand resulted in construction of a new Station 25 in 1990. Today, Montgomery County Fire & Rescue Services personnel staff Kensington's four firehouses and 29 other countywide stations with 1,000 career personnel. Another 1,000 volunteers supplement that force.

Responders to the first sniper shooting in this "infamous first due" didn't initially latch onto the first sniper shooting, of shopper James Martin. "It's not uncommon for that area. It's got its fair share of crime," said District 3 Chief John Gallo, a Montgomery County Fire & Rescue Services veteran who served Aspen Hill's District 4 when that area was the epicenter of the shootings.

The morning after Martin's murder dawned sunny. A 7:41 A.M. radio dispatch alerted firehouses of a shooting victim at the Fitzgerald Auto Mall in nearby Rockville. Stanton was on his way to work. He recalled, "It caught our attention. There was some thought that although it came in as a shooting, it might have been an injury from the mower he had been using to cut grass." James "Sonny" Buchanan, the first victim in a day that America will never forget, was transported as a trauma code to Suburban Hospital in nearby Bethesda, the local Level 2 trauma center. Stanton continued, "Even then, nobody related this to anything. Then the shooting at the Mobil station came in."

Shortly after 8 A.M., cab driver Premkumar Walekar pulled up to the center pump at the Mobil station in Station 25's area on busy Connecticut Avenue at Aspen Hill Road. A shot hit Walekar. He stumbled away from his car and fell back against a nearby minivan. As he slid to the ground, a swath of blood smeared the side of the vehicle. On-duty mechanic Warren Schifflet heard the "pop" and saw the well-known customer lying in a pool of blood. "I ran over to him and he was gasping for air," Schifflet said. "There was a terrible amount of blood. He was moving his jaw up and down gasping for air."

Commanding Engine 251 was Captain Pat Spevak, a 23-year veteran paramedic. Members of the busy firehouse at Connecticut Avenue and Bel Pres Road didn't know it yet, but their first due would become prime killing ground for the sniper. Spevak, 46, had recently transferred to Station 25 - he was returning to the field after a stint in EMS quality assurance. "It's a busy station with a wide variety of calls," he said. Nearly half of Station 25's runs are to Leisure World, a 10,000-resident retirement community.

Photo by Joseph Louderback
Kensington Volunteer Fire Department Station 25 members, from left, Dennis DiBenedetto, James Randall and Joe Simpson fought to save the life of cab driver Premkumar Walekar.

"When we arrived, there were dozens of police cars and cops everywhere," Spevak said. "It struck me odd." His crew went to work on the stricken cabbie. Rolling on scene, Gallo recalled, "When I arrived, a cop and a civilian were doing CPR. Our guys took over, they were intubating and treating the subject for a chest wound."

Buchanan's shooting and the Mobil incident occurring just a half hour later tipped officials that something was going on.

"It seemed very strange, like there was some sort of link," Gallo recalled. Spevak said, "I watched this female detective from Montgomery County get out of an unmarked car. She was in a business suit. She walked to the trunk and pulled out a bulletproof vest and I thought, 'Wow, what does she know that I don't know?' "

Officials set up a command post near the Mobil station as Sarah Ramos sat down at a bench in the Leisure World Plaza shopping center also in Station 25's first due. She opened a book. A bullet tore through her skull and exited through the window behind her. The 34-year-old mother slumped to her side and died. Blood saturated the bench and sidewalk. It was 8:37 A.M.

Montgomery County Fire &Rescue Services Deputy Chief of Operations Robert Allwang called Stanton's cell phone, asking, "Do you hear what's going on?" Said Stanton, "I was heading to the command post when the woman was shot on the bench."

Fire officials at the command post held a conference call to establish priorities. Scene personnel safety and additional EMS resources headed the list. "We needed to make sure each sniper scene was secured, but that was easier said than done," Gallo said. "Each area was bigger than a store, house or structure. It was hard to define."

Dan Blankfield, a volunteer assistant fire chief from Kensington, left the Mobil site and was one of the first to arrive at Leisure World. "There was a puddle of blood. It was an obvious DOA," he recalled. "I began to think, something is wrong here. This is going to be an absolutely different sort of a day." Stanton added, "We started thinking, we really have a problem. Is it gang-related or what?"

Montgomery County stations entered the "lock-down" mode as commanders activated additional medic units and juggled personnel to handle demand. Standard engine companies were upgraded to medic engines. Sirens and police officers carrying automatic weapons became the order of the day.

"No one felt secure or safe," Gallo said. "We thought about running calls. We looked over our shoulders. We felt vulnerable. We wanted to limit the time our people spent on scene. The order was to package the patient quickly and do triage inside the ambulance. Units were to release themselves from scenes quickly, no talking, just get back to quarters."

Photo by Joseph Louderback
Conrad Johnson's death at this bus stop was the last of three murders that occurred in Station 25's response area. A sign pleads, "Please stop the shootings."

The Shell station on Connecticut Avenue is just a stone's throw from Kensington Station 5 at Plyer's Mill Road. An hour after Station 25's shootings, Lori Lewis-Rivera was vacuuming her minivan within sight of the firehouse. A shot felled her at 9:58 A.M. Arriving on the scene, Blankfield recalled, "They were loading her into the ambulance. They were doing CPR, had an airway established and were heading to Suburban Hospital."

Station 25 Captain Spevak recalled the day of death brought a siege mentality for responders. "The rest of the day was so eerie," he said. "There were few cars on the street. You would pull up to normally busy intersections and there would be nobody there." Then the shooting stopped. In Montgomery County. Later that night, District of Columbia resident Pascal Charlot was killed as he crossed Georgia Avenue. Station 25 veteran Dennis DiBenedetto remembers an ominous radio transmission on his scanner after the 9:20 P.M. shooting: "Chief Gallo and I were listening and heard them mention a dark-colored sedan left the area with its lights off."

The attacks continued beyond Montgomery County throughout Virginia. But the horror returned almost to Station 25's front door on the morning of Oct. 22. Ironically, the crew was returning from a chest pains call across from the Mobil station where cab driver Walekar was shot. Spevak recounted, "A report came in that someone was shot at the intersection in front of our station. We looked out, but didn't see anything."

Nearby on Grand Pre Road just off Connecticut Avenue bus driver Conrad Johnson lay mortally wounded. Spevak recalled, "All the time, we were wondering where are they? Why here? What is attracting this guy to our area?" The apprehension of a pair of Beltway snipers was merely days away.

The day will come when veterans sit at the firehouse table and tell rookies about what it was like. It will be hard for them to understand police checkpoints, fear at the gas pump and always looking over your shoulder. No one in Montgomery County will ever forget those 23 days in October.

Joseph Louderback, a Firehouse® contributing editor, served as editor of the FDNY's Publications Unit and as a government affairs reporter. He is a 20-year member of the Milmont Fire Company in Milmont Park, PA, and conducts media relations programs for the fire service.