D.C. officials, firefighters, neighbors and friends filled New Bethel Baptist Church in Northwest Washington yesterday to remember Costello N. "Robbie" Robinson, the third D.C. firefighter to die in the line of duty in the past two months.
Robinson, 64, believed to have been the city's oldest active firefighter, died Friday morning, hours before he was scheduled to have knee surgery. He had injured the knee two days earlier when he was knocked down by a pit bull terrier while responding to a call on Temple Court NW.
Fire officials said Robinson had a massive heart attack, but the D.C. medical examiner's office and the police department are continuing to investigate the death, Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey said yesterday.
Officials eulogized Robinson, who lived in Shaw, as an extraordinary public servant. A technician and driver who was often among the first to respond to fire calls, he took only two sick days in his 36 years in the department, Mayor Anthony A. Williams said at the service.
The mayor praised the "Colonel," as Robinson was affectionately called, for his service in the Civil Air Patrol, an Air Force auxiliary. "He was cut from the same cloth as my father, who was a postal worker, not as heroic as a firefighter but a public servant as well," Williams said.
"Firefighter Robinson did not die on a ladder with flames shooting down his face, but he died just as heroically, doing the kind of action our firefighters do every day--and we never realize it," Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said to applause from firefighters.
D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) said he was angered by the possibility that a pit bull played a part in Robinson's death. He said he will introduce legislation that would outlaw owning a pit bull in the District. The owner of the pit bull that lunged at Robinson was issued a citation for letting the animal run loose.
Firefighters Louis J. Matthews and Anthony Phillips were fatally injured May 30 fighting a fire at a Fort Lincoln town house.
"Once again we in blue are gathered together to remember and celebrate the life of one of our own," Fire Chief Donald Edwards told mourners. He praised Robinson as a dedicated mentor who taught generations of younger firefighters his skills as a "wagon driver" maneuvering through busy downtown streets.
Lt. Ray Sneed, the head of the D.C. firefighters union, said Engine Company 2 answered 810 fire calls in 1963, the year Robinson joined the company, and 4,930 last year. In recent years, firefighters have been required to help the city's understaffed ambulance service by responding to medical calls as well as fire calls.
A poignant reminder of the constant emergency demands on firefighters occurred while the Rev. Walter E. Fauntroy, the church's pastor and a former D.C. delegate to Congress, delivered the eulogy. A series of pagers began beeping, and three fire officials immediately rose and left the room.
Less than a mile away, a heavy fire raged in the 1300 block of Harvard Street NW. It broke out shortly after 1 p.m., damaging two stories of a row house. The building was used as a rooming house and had six units, said a resident who escaped from a first-floor apartment when the blaze began.
Two people rescued from the building were taken to hospitals at Howard and George Washington universities and treated for smoke inhalation, said Battalion Chief Stephen M. Reid, a fire department spokesman.
Most of the District's fire units were in use for the funeral and had been stationed along the route of the procession, Reid said. As is traditional in such circumstances, units from seven neighboring fire departments pitched in to staff D.C. fire stations for the day.
Firefighters from the Cabin John and Kentland fire departments were the first to respond to the Harvard Street blaze, Reid said. Most of the pinch-hitting firefighters were from volunteer departments or were working a day they would usually have off.
"We do it on our own time--that's the way we want to do it," said Lt. David Conrad, a Fairfax County firefighter who responded to the blaze and helped check the house. He said the Fairfax fire department has "been fortunate" and never had a death in the line of duty.
As the row house fire was being put out, Robinson's coffin was placed on an Engine Company 2 firetruck and driven away. He was buried at Fort Lincoln Cemetery in Bladensburg.
Staff writer Philip P. Pan contributed to this report.
CAPTION: The coffin of Robinson, who officials say died of a heart attack, is carried from New Bethel Baptist in Northwest.
CAPTION: Officials say Costello N. Robinson, 64, died hours before he was to undergo surgery for a knee that was injured days before during an attack by a pit bull.
CAPTION: Firefighters Melvin Powell, back to camera, and Kevin Logan embrace at funeral for Costello N. Robinson. Dennis Kues is at left.
CAPTION: During the funeral, firefighters were called to battle a blaze in Northwest.