Charles County sheriffs help make girl's Christmas merrier, despite loss of her firefighter father

By Courtland Milloy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 5, 2010; 8:12 PM

Thanks to the Charles County Sheriff's Office, 8-year-old Cheyenne Browne has pretty much everything she wants for Christmas - a new dress, jeans, pajamas, sneakers and boots.

Everything except maybe a remote-controlled fire truck, helicopter and police car - and a Barbie doll.

Not that she's complaining. It's just that her father, Michael Browne, was a volunteer firefighter when the family lived in Riegelwood, N.C. In 2006, he was killed while shielding Cheyenne, then 4, from a tornado that destroyed their home.

"My dad used to let me ride in his fire truck with him," Cheyenne said. She loves to wear his firefighters hat - and sure would like a truck to go with it.

Now living with her grandmother in Waldorf, Cheyenne was among 85 youngsters chosen by a volunteer group of sheriffs' deputies to participate in their annual "Shop with a Cop" program. On Saturday, a motorcade of patrol cars carried them to a Wal-Mart, where they got to spend about $200 apiece, mostly on clothes.

Deputy Sheriff Clarence Black served as Cheyenne's chauffeur and chaperone, and he had the foresight to bring along two civilian volunteers, both women, to help the girl pick out clothes.

In the toy department, however, Cheyenne needed no help at all. A big, shiny red remote-controlled hook and ladder made her eyes light up. But the truck was a budget buster, and essentials like shoes and coats had to come first.

Then she saw a remote-controlled helicopter. And her eyes lighted up again. "I rode in one," she said.

Four years ago, on Nov. 16, her father was headed for work at the Acme-Delco-Riegelwood Fire and Rescue Station when he heard the tornado warning on his fire dispatch radio.

Michael Browne went back to get Cheyenne and other family members - he and her mother had separated - to take everybody to the fire station for safety. As he was carrying his daughter to the car, however, the tornado appeared out of nowhere. He tried to make it to a ravine for cover.

But, as Cheyenne recalled, "We just started flying, like Superman."

Browne died after being pummeled by debris. Cheyenne was critically injured when a tree limb fell on her face, crushing her jaw. She briefly regained consciousness while being airlifted by helicopter to a hospital in Chapel Hill.

That's where the fascination with whirlybirds comes from.

But instead of getting one, she decided to buy some candles and glassware as gifts for others.

Linda Browne, her grandmother, described Cheyenne as precocious yet well-mannered, wise beyond her years. She praised Charles County school officials for providing special assistance to the family. But having a tutor who could work with Cheyenne at home would be most welcomed.

The family may be eligible for support through National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, headquartered in Emmitsburg, Md. At issue is whether Michael Brown died "in the line of duty" because he was reporting to work before his shift had officially begun, and then went back to save his family upon hearing that the tornado was about to strike.

The decision is up to the Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Assistance, which funds the foundation.

Meanwhile, Linda Browne is making ends meet by working two jobs - as a telephone operator for a salvage company and by cleaning up a medical office after hours.

She is especially grateful to the Charles County Sheriff's Office for helping to ease her financial burden during the holidays, along with the county businesses and residents that support such an awe-inspiring community outreach program.

Of course, the real hero is Cheyenne, who took a bold step last year toward overcoming a fear of tornadoes by dressing up for Halloween as Dorothy from "The Wizard of Oz."

On the one-year anniversary of her father's death, Cheyenne joined Riegelwood officials in honoring him and presenting awards to other emergency responders who had demonstrated heroism and valor.

"If I had a firetruck and a helicopter, I would rescue Barbie from a Rapunzel castle," she said.

No surprise that she wants to be a firefighter, too, someday.

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