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Fireman dies of heart attack

- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 8, 2007

A D.C. firefighter died while on duty early yesterday morning of a suspected heart attack — the department's first on-duty loss in eight years.

Firefighter James McRae III, 34, started complaining of chest pains and difficulty breathing about 12:30 a.m. yesterday, fire department spokesman Alan Etter said.

Mr. McRae, a tillerman on Truck 12 at Engine 20 on Wisconsin Avenue in Northwest, was taken to Sibley Memorial Hospital, where it was determined that he was having a heart attack. He then was taken in a Medevac helicopter to Washington Hospital Center, where he died around 4:30 a.m., Mr. Etter said.

Mr. McRae, a nearly 16-year veteran of the department, was not known to previously have suffered any medical problems, Mr. Etter said.

"He never experienced any kind of cardiac problem," he said. "He seemed fine. He was always smiling. He always had a good word to say."

The highest percentage of on-duty firefighter fatalities in the U.S. are due to sudden cardiac death, according to a recent study published by the National Fire Protection Association. Of the 89 U.S. firefighter deaths last year, 34 were caused by sudden cardiac death, according to an association report.

"Sudden cardiac death, most often the result of heart attack, is typically the leading nature of injury and usually accounts for close to half of the total on-duty deaths," the report said.

"This is a job that's very physically demanding, and it's emotionally demanding, which adds to a level of stress that can negatively impact people," Mr. Etter said.

Mr. McRae responded to some medical emergencies and a fire alarm Friday night, Mr. Etter said.

His death is considered an on-duty death under a U.S. Department of Justice program that provides benefits to families of public-safety officials who are killed in the line of duty or die of a heart attack or stroke within 24 hours of a public-service act.

Mr. McRae has a 9-year-old daughter. His mother and father live in the District, Mr. Etter said.

The department has not yet finalized plans for a memorial service, Mr. Etter said.

"We're still shaken by what happened," he said. "This is very jarring."

The last D.C. firefighter died on duty in June 1999, Mr. Etter said. That year, three firefighters died while on duty, he said.