Report offers insight into the death of fallen volunteer firefighter Gene Kirchner

A year ago today, firefighters responded to a fire at a house on Hanover Road in Reisterstown with people trapped inside, and Gene Kirchner and his partner headed straight for the second floor.
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Minutes later, amidst heavy smoke, zero visibility and extreme heat, an emergency signal led his fellow firefighters to Kirchner, who was unconscious, and he was not wearing his face piece, his hood nor his helmet.
 
That revelation was part of a 140 -page report released by the Baltimore County Fire Department  one year after the fire that ultimately took the life of Kirchner and 58-year-old Steven Starr, a resident of the house.
 
"There was a thorough examination of the physical evidence, including his gear.  That examination showed everything he was supposed to be wearing or carrying was in good working order,” said Elise Armacost of the Baltimore County Fire Department, “So at the end of the day, this is a mystery that we may never know the answer to."
 
Kirchner's locker remains untouched at the Reisterstown Volunteer Fire Company where Chief Robert Murray, Sr. says the report has left an empty feeling.
 
"Let's just say that he went in and the floor collapsed or something catastrophic happened in the building," he said. "I think that would what we would say (was) the big error, but from the way we read it everything is subjective right now and I wish Gene was alive and we could resolve some of the issues on this thing."
 
At 25 years old, Kirchner had served with the company for nine years responding to more than 3,000 medical emergency and fire calls. He followed in the footsteps of this twin brother, Will, and his older sister, Shelly. At the time of his death, Kirchner was employed by Butler Medical as an EMT and dispatcher and had career goals of becoming a Baltimore County Fire Department Paramedic.
 
Murray says what happened in that final call should not distract from the fact he died a hero sacrificing his life in an effort to save another.
 
"I'm sure for some it would be full closure," he said. "I mean first of all for the family.  I'm sure... I've role played the scenario.  I have all my sons in the fire department so if it was me, would I like to have something that I could definitively say, 'This is the cause or this is the thing on that,' but I don't even know after that if there's great peace that comes with that."
 
According to the report, the cause of the fire was undetermined, although the blaze started in the home’s kitchen. The Office of the State Medical Examiner determined that Kirchner died of smoke inhalation and thermal injuries with complication. His death was ruled as accidental.

The report also included 14 recommendations moving forward that county firefighters should utilize to improve protocol for future fires. This includes working in pairs at all times when practical. According to the report, Kirchner and his partner got separated when searching for victims on the second floor of the house. Also, no personnel should enter a potentially life-threatening situation without a portable radio.

In addition, personnel should “be prepared for unexpected building construction and occupancy features that are not readily visible that can affect fire dynamics.” According to the report, “there was a lot of clutter on the second floor [of the home] requiring him to move and relocate items in the hallway to make a path forward during the search for the civilian victim.”

The report also recommended the personnel must fully don protective gear before entering a life-threatening environment.

Murray says yet another report on the incident is due out from the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health in the next few weeks, and he's hoping to use both of them to review operations at the fire company.
 
Kirchner will be honored May 2 at Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens as part of the state’s annual “Fallen Heroes Day.”
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ABC2 News' Ron Snyder contributed to this story.
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