- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 20, 2002

D.C. firefighters were ambushed and pelted with rocks while putting out a couch fire in Southeast, according to police and Firefighter Robert Hodges, who was driving Battalion 3's Engine 32 through a high-crime area.
Firefighter Hodges said the rocks about the size of baseballs hit a fire officer in the head and two others hit the fire engine, chipping a window.
"It was like an ambush," Firefighter Hodges said. "We didn't expect anything like that to happen."
Interim Fire Chief Adrian Thompson, who was once chief of Battalion 3, said he could recall incidents in the city where firefighters had been called names but had never heard of firefighters being forced to take cover while responding to a call.
"It's very dangerous and risky to our people," he said, pointing out that attacking a firefighter carries the same charge as assaulting a police officer up to 10 years in prison.
The four-man crew on Engine 32 was responding to a Dumpster fire in the 2900 block of Gainesville Road SE at about 10:30 p.m. Thursday. It is an area of abandoned buildings and empty lots littered with junked cars and washing machines. Crowds of teenagers and young men who live in the neighborhood's block-shaped apartment buildings hang around street corners and gather on rooftops.
The rock-throwing incident occurred shortly after the crew had put out the fire in the Dumpster and noticed something burning a little farther down the road. As they started moving toward the second fire, which turned out to be a sofa in flames in the street, they were hit by rocks coming from the roof of a three-story building.
Firefighter Hodges said two firefighters were walking in front of the vehicle and the fire officer was walking behind. They were not immediately aware of the attack so Firefighter Hodges pulled the engine's air horn to get their attention. The officer was hit in the helmet with a rock before he could take cover but was uninjured.
Firefighter Hodges said he called communications and notified them his crew was being attacked. The dispatcher asked him to repeat himself.
"I got on the microphone and said, 'Look, send [the police]. We're being rocked,'" he said. "That was all I had to say. Before I knew it, police were there." He said police issued a distress call and units responded within three minutes. By the time they arrived the attackers had fled. No arrests have been made.
Firefighter Hodges, who has been stationed at Engine 32 for 11 years, said the firefighters have a "pretty good" relationship with the community. He said he's heard stories of engines and ambulances being hit with rocks, bottles or eggs but this was the first time it happened to him.
"It's like, come on. We're just here to do our job and the public attacks us," Firefighter Hodges said. "It's always dangerous going into burning buildings, putting your life at risk. We were just doing our job."
"Firefighters tell me it happens a lot," D.C. fire department spokesman Alan Etter said. "It's just not reported because people are not hurt."
Firefighters of Engine 15 were threatened Wednesday morning by family members of a 15-year-old girl who was having convulsions and later died. The family members claimed emergency workers did not respond quickly enough and were not working hard enough to save the girl.
Later in the day police were called when bricks were thrown at the firehouse where the crew is stationed.
D.C. police Sgt. Joe Gentile said investigators from the 7th District have arrested a juvenile in that case. The juvenile is charged with destruction of property.
Mr. Etter said there is no connection between the two cases, referring to Wednesday's incident as an "emotionally volatile situation."
He said the fact no firefighters were hurt in Thursday's attack does not lessen the seriousness of the incident.
"Firefighters don't carry guns. They don't carry Mace," Mr. Etter said. "How outrageous is it that you have men and women who are sworn to protect the well-being of the public then being attacked by the public they're trying to protect?"
Firefighter Hodges said the incident won't make him think twice about responding to calls but it will keep him more attuned to his surroundings, especially at night.


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