A tragedy that triggered an unflinching self-examination has become a turning point in the proud history of the Wilmington Fire Department
The name conjures an image of an expanse of water dappled with moonlight, perhaps a rowboat gently bobbing by a wooden dock, pine trees lining the shore.
But Wilmington’s Lakeview Road is the antithesis of that bucolic scene. It is nowhere near a lake, or any body of water. It is a narrow street of two-story rowhomes in Canby Park, a blue-collar neighborhood on the western edge of the city.
In the early morning of Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016, one of those homes, 1927 Lakeview, became a fiery hellhole that claimed three of Wilmington’s finest and injured three others, making it the most tragic day in the proud 100-year history of the Wilmington Fire Department.
Adding to the tragedy was the fact that this was arson, and the deaths would be ruled homicides. Beatriz Fana-Ruiz, who lived in the house, told investigators she was drunk and on anxiety medication when she became angry early that morning and set the fire. In December 2019, she pleaded guilty to one count each of second-degree murder, arson, and assault, and was sentenced to 30 years in prison.
To its credit, in this, its centennial year, the department made 1927 Lakeview a turning point, and it has risen from the ashes of that inferno to make changes and fine-tune procedures, thanks to a painstaking and unflinching self-examination.
Like most fires, 1927 Lakeview presented challenges. The street itself, with houses tight to both sides, made it difficult for large fire trucks to negotiate when they arrived shortly after 3 a.m. The panicked 911 caller had reported — accurately — that no one remained in the house. But 911 calls are notoriously inaccurate, and as neighbors at the scene insisted there were still people inside, firefighters entered the house to search for potential victimes. Instead, they became the victims.
Ardythe Hope and Christopher Leach were among the first to enter, through the front of the house. Within minutes, the first floor collapsed, and they fell into the basement. (The first floor was burdened with three refrigerators, a commercial freezer, an aquarium, and a large TV.) Hope was pinned under a refrigerator and debris, and Leach under more debris, while the fire raged around them.
Moments later, Jerry Fickes and another firefighter entered the house from the rear to help extricate their two comrades. A second collapse brought down the rest of the first floor on Fickes.
Leach and Fickes would die at the scene. (The Elsmere Fire Co., which had joined the effort to extinguish the fire, went to their firehouse, brought a flag to the scene, and draped it over Chris Leach.)
Hope, badly burned, spent 68 days in Crozier Medical Center before succumbing to her injuries on Dec. 1. All three were promoted posthumously. Leach to captain, and Hope and Fickes to lieutenant.
Brad Speakman, Terrance Tate, and John Cawthray were injured in the fire. Speakman also was trapped in the basement and was severely burned on his hands, arms and other parts of his body. He spent 40 days in treatment and would take a medical retirement. Tate retired about a year later. Cawthray is still with the department.
What Might Have Been
The deaths of the three heroes left their families and fellow firefighters to anguish over the saddest words in the English language: What might have been. All three lives held so much promise and potential.
Ardythe Denise “Ardy” Hope was a 48-year-old single mother of three daughters who joined the WFD in 1993. She graduated from fire school with Chief of Fire John Looney, who remembers her as “fun-loving, always with a smile on her face.” A standout track and cross country runner in high school, she won the department’s Physical Fitness Award.
While working full-time as a firefighter she attended school to earn her license as a practical nurse and was in the process of completing her training to become an RN. She planned to retire in early 2017 to begin a nursing career.
Christopher Michael Leach, 41, had 14 years of service with the WFD.
The father of a son and two daughters, Leach was a graduate of Salesianum School. Brendan Kennealey, past president of Salesianum, was Leach’s classmate at Sallies. “Chris wanted to be a firefighter as far back as I knew him,” Kennealey said. “We spoke about it often.”
The week prior to the fire, Kennealey said, Leach had given a talk at a local elementary school, telling the students how much he loved firefighting.
Leach had a bachelor’s degree in fire science administration and was working on a master’s in organizational leadership with a concentration in fire/rescue executive leadership.
Jerry Wayne Fickes Jr., 51, had been an Army Airborne infantry officer. Airborne soldiers jump out of planes and fight the enemy on the ground, so charging into burning buildings to fight fires would seem to be a perfect civilian job for such a man.
But that came after a successful stint in a much more staid occupation: actuary. While working those actuarial tables, Fickes satisfied his need for action by joining the Aetna Hose, Hook and Ladder Co. in Newark. Then 9-11 happened, and he joined the WFD, and firefighting became his true calling.
Remembers one of his comrades: “He was bright-eyed and ready to go into a fire, and when he’d come out, every piece of dirt in the place was on him.”
Fickes left behind a wife and two sons.
97-Page NIOSH Report
The WFD began examining and improving its procedures soon after the fire, and that process was accelerated by a 97-page report from NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health), issued in December 2018. The detailed report analyzed the fire and the WFD’s response, and listed 19 recommendations based on the events of Sept. 24, 2016.
Under then Chief of Fire Michael Donohue, the department set about implementing those recommendations, which included more training for basement fires, more live fire training, improved communications, and increased training on handling mayday operations, which occur when a firefighter is lost, or when someone falls into a basement or falls through a roof.
Looney, who succeeded Donohue in May, says that almost all the recommendations have been implemented, and as it enters its second century, the WFD can take pride in a thorough and transparent analysis and revision of many of its practices and procedures.
That analysis, based on the NIOSH report, took the form of what was called the First Annual Lakeview Road Fire Training Symposium. It was presented at Theatre N on Sept. 26 — five years and two days after the Lakeview fire. About 100 firefighters attended in person while a few hundred watched live remotely. Gordon Davis, battalion chief in the Safety & Training Division, says the WFD is hoping to hold training sessions around that time every year. It’s safe to say that none will have the emotional impact of the first.
Available for all to see on YouTube (OutAndAboutNow.com/wfdsymposium), the symposium is more than a detailed dissection of everything that occurred on that deadly morning; it is a four-hour-long human drama that includes interviews with many of the firefighters who were there. At times, it is gut-wrenchingly hard to watch, as these men — heroes every one — struggle with their emotions while speaking on camera of their fallen comrades and the events that led to their deaths.
Rev. Brad Martin, one of two chaplains serving the WFD, says, “the symposium was a timely step in helping everyone to move forward. Chief Davis and Chief Looney did a great job on it.”
Martin describes Lakeview as “a grave crisis” for the entire department. He went to the scene that night, and in its aftermath counseled several firemen, referring some to professionals. Since then, Martin says, the department has established a peer counseling program.
The most visible result of the tragedy is the memorial that now stands at the scene of the fire. Made possible by donations to the Wilmington Firefighters Benevolent Fund, the non-profit branch of Wilmington Firefighters Local 1590, the memorial includes a flag pole, three granite benches engraved with the names of the fallen firefighters, and a fence. By next spring, pavers engraved with the names of donors or messages from donors will replace the bricks that are there now.
“Volunteer fire companies in New Castle County were very generous, and we’ve also had several businesses that donated,” says Lt. Jeffrey Schall, who was the driving force behind the memorial. At the dedication, Schall said the purpose of the memorial is “to create a beautiful memory to honor our friends, Ardy, Chris, and Jerry. Along with this vision was a concept . . . to never let anyone build on this sacred ground.”
“Lakeview and what happened there will always be with us, and we’ll carry it in our hearts and minds,” says Martin. “But the symposium and the memorial were helpful in the healing process — the right things at the right time.”
Marking 100 Years
An Oct. 24 memorial service for Fickes, Hope and Leach at St. Elizabeth Catholic Church was a central event in the department’s 100th anniversary celebration, which spanned two months. Festivities also included open houses at the seven fire stations and a block party in October, and ended with a Nov. 30 banquet at the Chase Center on the Riverfront. That date was chosen because on Nov. 30, 1921, Wilmington transitioned to a professional fire department. Prior to that, beginning with the formation of Friendship Fire Co. No. 1 in 1775, it had been a volunteer organization.
The highlight of the centennial events was the Oct. 23 parade in downtown Wilmington. Deemed by veteran observers as the largest in Wilmington’s history, it lasted some 90 minutes and featured 22 bands, including those from the University of Delaware and the Marine Corps, and more than 40 fire companies, as well as police agencies, paramedics, and emergency services.
Looney, who proudly marched at the front of the department’s 150 men and six women, was clearly moved by the crowd’s cheers and applause. “It was humbling,” he said, “beyond what we expected. There was a roar when we came up King Street when we got to about 10th or 12th. I wish I had recorded it. It was overwhelming; it made your eyes water.”
Significant Dates in the History of the Wilmington Fire Dept.
1775 – Friendship Fire Co. No. 1 is formed
1828 – First fire hydrants installed
1882 – First hook & ladder truck
1896 – First horse-drawn ladder truck; first horse-drawn ambulance
1909 – First motorized fire engine
1910 – First motorized ambulance
1913 – Ladies Auxiliary formed
1921 – Professional department established
1922 – First recorded line-of-duty death: Edward J. Pappa
1923 – Firemen’s pension fund established
1961 – First Black fireman
1966 – “Fireman” changed to “firefighter”
1967 – First Hispanic firefighter
1968 – Civil unrest demonstrations
1970 – First SCBAs (self-contained breathing apparatus) purchased
1983 – First female firefighters (three)
1989 – First ladder tower purchased
1998 – Prince A. Mousley Jr. dies in the line of duty, marking the last line-of-duty death prior to Lakeview. A total of 18 firefighters have died on duty since 1922.