BALTIMORE – Dinner time at Walbrook fire station is a family affair. Raucous laughter, taunts and gentle ribbing are commonplace amid the brotherhood of firefighters who work the D shift, which stretches from 5 p.m. to 6 a.m.
Maryland National Guardsman Sgt. Brian R. Conner, 36, was one of the brothers. He died Friday in Iraq, one of three Maryland guardsmen killed in the same incident who were the first Maryland guardsmen to be killed on overseas duty since World War II. Now the firehouse family he left behind is coping with their loss the only way they know how: with humor and companionship.
Jason Turner, a youthful emergency vehicle operator, recalled how Conner, a lieutenant at the firehouse, gave him a nickname he says will likely stick for the next 20 years.
“Brian was one of the people who started calling me Malibu,” Turner said, explaining the name came from the movie, “Malibu’s Most Wanted,” about a rich white kid trying to fit in with his black cohorts.
Lt. George Jones, 39, remembered a joke he played on his friend one night on a call to a rat-infested building.
“He was deathly afraid of rats,” Jones said. “I came up behind him and grabbed the back of his leg. He jumped at least 5 feet in the air.”
In spite of the outward levity, the loss is deeply felt, said fellow firefighter Skip Shockney.
“When you work with 10 guys day in and day out, you know, you’re working with 10 brothers. If something happens to one of us, everyone feels it.”
Turner said Conner’s parents and some of the guys at the station refer to him as “big baby” or “gentle giant” because of his size. Pump operator Joe Graham pegged him at about 6 feet 3 inches.
“But he wouldn’t hurt anybody,” Turner said. “He was just this overly generous type of person who was dedicated to his job and his family.”
Conner had been on leave from the firehouse since late May, Graham said. His unit in the Maryland National Guard’s 243rd Engineer Company, which he joined in 1989, was activated for duty in June, said Maj. Charles Kohler, spokesman for the Maryland National Guard. They left for Kuwait in August.
Conner had stayed in touch with his friends and with Jones in particular. The two both served as lieutenants at Walbrook. Conner had been stationed there for two years.
“I received a message from Brian on my home phone on Oct. 10 telling me he was in Iraq and he was safe . . . just stressed out, and he’d lost a lot of weight,” Jones recalled.
Conner lost most of his personal possessions in bombings, Jones said. After hearing this, Turner organized a care package from the firefighters. It contained toiletries, snack foods and personal letters and was sent off just a week before Conner’s death on Oct. 14.
He died in Al Taji, Iraq, when a tractor trailer rear-ended the vehicle he and two other Maryland Guardsmen were riding in, the Department of Defense reported. The impact ignited a fire that detonated weapons they were carrying as part of convoy operations. All three were killed. The others were Spc. Samuel M. Boswell, 20, of Elkridge, and Spc. Bernard L. Ceo, 23, of Baltimore.
During one of their last nights together, Conner and other Walbrook firefighters held a prayer session and going-away dinner of steak and potatoes, Jones said.
Truck driver Matt Petty said he told Conner to be careful.
“I ribbed him and said you’d make one hell of a target, you’re so big,” Petty said. “But anybody in the line of service deserves our utmost respect. They’re fighting for the freedoms we have.”
The men acknowledged the similarities between the soldier and the firefighter and the risk-taking involved in both jobs.
“We really don’t think about (dying on duty),” Jones said. “I’ve been cut, burned and fell through a floor. And I still get up and do the job. I love this job.”
For all his bravado, however, Jones admits his friend’s death has been hard on him. The firehouse, and a number of firehouses in Baltimore, pooled donations for Conner’s family, including three daughters he’d raised as a single father. They delivered them to Conner’s mother, Hortense Conner, earlier in the week.
“I cried,” Jones said, fingering a keychain that read “Truck 18,” Walbrook’s fire truck. “We had talked about getting these (keychains) made for all of the guys, but we never finished it.”
The Walbrook station flag flies at half-staff, and its doors are draped with black curtains. The fire truck is adorned with a black band along the passenger-side window, and Conner’s firefighter hat still sits on top of a shelf in his old office.
Before he left, he had asked Jones to be one of his pallbearers if he was killed. Jones recalled, “I told him, ‘Man, that’s going to be one heavy casket. You’re a big guy.’ I said, ‘Don’t do anything dumb like getting yourself killed.'”
Jones said he will serve as one of Conner’s honorary pallbearers at services that are being arranged by the military; military officials will likely carry his casket.
“But I hope that I’ll be the one to carry his hat,” Jones said.
The Walbrook station is organizing the Lt. Conner Trust Fund to support the three daughters he left behind. For more information, contact Lt. George Jones at 443-562-1143. – 30 – CNS-10-20-05