23 Days In October

Joseph Louderback reports on the crews that were “first due” at five sniper attacks.


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...


To access the remainder of this piece of premium content, you must be registered with Firehouse. Already have an account? Login

Register in seconds by connecting with your preferred Social Network.

OR

Complete the registration form.

Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required

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.

3_03_october1.jpg
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."

This content continues onto the next page...