Death of a Firefighter
In 45 years, Bucharest firefighters had never lost one of their own in a fire. Then Ionuţ Ungureanu died.
It was hell on earth.
The red building and everything in it were burning furiously, the thick smoke rising in a column that, when morning came, could be seen from every corner of the city. The firefighters were spraying water but they might as well have been spraying gasoline; no amount of water seemed to keep the plastics from bursting into flames again.
The blaze had engulfed two of the five hectares of one of the buildings that make up Red Dragon, a huge shopping center on the eastern outskirts of Bucharest where Chinese businesses sell plastic goods, clothes and household appliances. The fire, triggered by a short circuit, had been called in at 4:23 a.m., on May 26, 2010, and the Bucharest Fire Department had first sent fire trucks from Fundeni, the station responsible for the area. By 5:30 a.m., they had called in fire trucks with water and foam, ladders and ambulances from three other stations, the Special Rescue Department and the quick-response ambulance service, SMURD. By the end of the day, the number of emergency response vehicles had risen to 34, and that of firefighters to over 150. The last truck left the area after 200 hours, more than eight days later.
It was the biggest fire to occur in Bucharest in 30 years. Insurance firm Generali paid over 13 million euros to the owners, Niro Investment, making it the largest insurance claim ever paid in Romania.
Of the more than 150 firefighters, seven were treated for smoke inhalation after going in without their masks when their oxygen tanks ran out. Another one, Dumitru Comşa, ended up in the hospital in a coma, with third degree burns on 60 percent of his body. And Ionuţ Ungureanu never returned to his fire station again.
Sergeant-major Ungureanu didn’t even want to fight this fire. He had just finished his patrol – he had watched his fire station, Dămăroaia, between midnight and 3 a.m. – and had told the supervisor his back hurt. Working out often to stay fit, he had suffered an injury between the C3 and C4 vertebrae and had occasional pain. One of his colleagues had rubbed some calming lotion on his lower back but it still hurt. But, because he was on duty until 8 a.m., he followed orders and climbed into the fire truck, upset that he hadn’t been excused. Because he had never seen him angry before – he never lost his temper, was always polite and conciliatory – one of his colleagues didn’t even dare ask for his boots from under Ungureanu’s seat. The sergeant major kept quiet throughout the entire 15-kilometers ride from the fire station to Red Dragon.
The two fire engines sent from Dămăroaia were among the first to reach Red Dragon, at 05:40 a.m. The priorities, according to any fire service rule book, are, in this order, to save people and animals, and then to control and extinguish the fire. With the shopping center empty there was no one to save, so they were immediately sent inside to control the fire. When the 10 firefighters from Dămăroaia entered building 5, the flames were still far away. They wore intervention suits, thick clothes meant to protect them, helmets, oxygen masks and tanks and they carried hoses that linked them back to the fire trucks, because the building’s hydrants were dry.
At the same time, other teams worked inside and outside, with water and foam cannons or with hoses from the ground. The metal plated walls and the roof had warped and the air burned like an oven.
At around 7:30 a.m., after almost two hours of trying to control the fire, the space they were in filled with a terrible smoke and they couldn’t see anything anymore. Suddenly, with a bang, large pieces of the roof and metal beams came crashing down on them and the air turned into fire – a rare phenomenon called flashover which happens due to the ignition of the highly flammable gases that objects release at high temperatures.
At first, they all dropped to the ground to take cover from the flames. Then, in the chaos, each man tried to get out however he could. When they saw what was happening, the commanders ordered a halt on the fire fighting inside and the recovery of the equipment.
The firefighters who managed to get out started dragging the remaining hoses from the building. A firefighter who had gotten lost inside grabbed one of them and let himself be dragged outside, with his suit on fire. Ungureanu and Comşa, who worked together, further away from the entrance, couldn’t find their way back. Comşa crossed the whole building through the flames and exited at the other end. His suit was on fire, his mask had melted into his face, the red helmet was carbonized and his hands were burnt to the bone. The firefighters at the door opened the 22-year-old’s suit and took off his mask, terrified by his agony. Before passing out, Comşa said there was somebody else inside.
No one knows how Ungureanu died. No one knows because he died alone.
They were unable to go back in until a few hours later, when they created a safe lane with their hoses through the burning pits. When they found him, his right leg was broken and his head and hands were charred. He didn’t have his oxygen mask on, nor his helmet. The fiberglass oxygen tank was disfigured from the heat. Had it exploded, they wouldn’t have found any piece of him.
His hands were clutched close to his chest, as if he had defended himself from something, but there was nothing on him, no beam, no wall. He may have broken his leg when the building collapsed and that may have been why he couldn’t follow Comşa. He may have taken off his mask because the plastic it was made of melted in the flashover and he couldn’t stand it on his face. He may have gotten confused and separated from Comşa and may have broken his leg later on because he couldn’t see where he was going. No one knows. No one will ever know.
More than a year later, the investigation result is still pending, there are no accusations and no consolation. Firefighters, who think that what happened to Ungureanu could happen to any of them, are still waiting for a resolution to help them understand this tragedy. His family, now struggling without his support, is still waiting for the authorities to keep the promises they made at the funeral.
Ungureanu was born on November 30, 1986, Marin’s first son and Florina’s second. They named him Ionuţ, after his godfather, and Cristian, after the goalkeeper of football team F.C. Argeş, Gheorghe Cristian. The family lives in Valea Mare in Olt county, a large village with three churches, 10 km away from Slatina. Back then, the father worked at the aluminum smelter in Slatina, the mother was a housewife. The family grew, in 1989, when Iulian, their second boy, was born.
Ionuţ did well in school. While in elementary school, when the grading system changed from numbers to ratings, he came home crying for getting a 7. Actually, it was a VG, meaning very good, but he had been too troubled by the idea of failure to read the rating correctly. He was admitted to the best high school (according to the percentage of graduates going to college) in nearby Slatina, to study natural sciences. As a child he had dreamed of becoming a police officer but, as he grew up, he changed his mind and decided to become a veterinarian.
After graduating high school in 2005, he applied to the Bucharest colleges of Veterinary Medicine and Mechanical Engineering. He got into both and he chose the latter, on his family’s advice. He had a natural proclivity for dismantling computers and seeing how they worked – neighbors would often come to him for small repairs – so it seemed like a suitable career.
He returned home every other weekend, always by train or bus. His father’s biggest fear was that something would happen to him. After witnessing his own father’s death in a car crash when he was eight, Marin didn’t want his son traveling by minibus or hitchhiking.
In 2007, when the family’s financial situation worsened, Ionuţ started looking for a job. Marin had retired and suffered from a series of mental disorders that required frequent medical attention and expensive medication, while Florina had a chronic disease that required ongoing treatment. With Iulian still in high school, Ionuţ was the only one who could help his family.
In a chance meeting on a train, a neighbor once told him that working for the fire department was a rewarding and decently-paid job. That summer Ionuţ applied, took the test and easily passed the physical exams – he had been doing bodybuilding since high school and was in great shape. He put his university studies on hold, planning to go back to school after finishing his firefighter training. On Sept. 1, 2007, he joined the Dămăroaia Fire Station crew at the Bucharest Fire Department as a sergeant major, a non-commissioned officer, or NCO.
“He was very happy when he was accepted to be a firefighter,” his mother remembers. He was proud to have been selected from among so many applicants, to wear a uniform, to be able to send money to his family. He continued to come home just as often, now for three days in a row, because his shifts were 24 hours followed by 72 hours of free time. He would always bring his weights home with him and work out every day. He was always asking Florina: “Mom, did I put on weight or did I lose some?” referring to whether he’d increased his body mass or not.
On May 24, 2010, he left for Bucharest for the last time. As usual, the family and Adiţă, a frisky little brown dog, walked him the two kilometers to the main street. They stayed with him until the bus came. When he got home, he called his mother, as he always did, so she wouldn’t worry. The next morning, he started his shift.
The family was working in the field when, around noon, Iulian’s phone rang. “Mister Ungureanu? My condolences.” Iulian doesn’t remember now who it was; as he heard the words he started trembling. They told him they were waiting for them at home.
When they got home, they were met by the village mayor, by colonel Gheorghe Năstasie – chief inspector of the Olt county Fire Department – an ambulance and the local media. Firefighters had tried in vain to reach the family before them, wanting desperately to break the news to the family before journalists did. It was obvious, with so many TV crews covering the Red Dragon fire live, that his name would not be a secret for too long. (One of his colleagues at the fire station, who was working another shift, was told at 9 a.m., just as he was about to call Ungureanu to ask him who had died.)
“They asked me to send someone to inform the family immediately, but I considered it my duty to do it myself,” colonel Năstasie remembers. “It’s not a common thing to break the news of such a young man’s death.”
The media captured the moment in all of its brutality. Images of Florina screaming, collapsing by the old, crooked fence of their home, of Marin leaning against it, confused, of Iulian crying, constantly covering his face, were all over TV news and newspapers. The story the media was telling was that Ungureanu had been crushed by a burning ceiling and that, before being caught under the debris, he had pushed Comşa away thus saving his life. That was the Bucharest Fire Department’s version, still public on their website on an honorary page dedicated to Ungureanu. (The firefighters who found him say there was nothing on him but, until the Military Prosecutor’s Office finishes its investigation, this remains the official story.)
The next day, Iulian came to Bucharest to the Forensics Office to identify his body. It was just a formality, but Iulian wanted to see him, burnt though he was beyond recognition. Otherwise he wouldn’t have believed it.
A few hours later, the coffin was brought to the Dămăroaia Fire Station covered with the flag, his sergeant-major stripes and a firefighter helmet on top, to receive military honors. Behind the coffin, leaning against the doors of the garage, Iulian didn’t cry, didn’t move at all. Young NCOs who couldn’t control their trembling chins cried whenever the Orthodox synod sang his name or when the superior officers mentioned it in their speeches.
By the coffin, there was Ungureanu’s photo from when he became a firefighter, absurdly altered to reflect his post mortem promotion: instead of the thick sergeant-major stripes he wore the slim ensign one.
With hundreds of firefighters watching, colonel Stelian Duduş, the chief inspector of the Bucharest Fire Department, paid his respects to Ungureanu for his sacrifice and courage to save Comşa and proposed that the Intervention Unit No. 2 be renamed after him (the Intervention Unit is a larger structure that coordinates as many as five or six fire stations, covering about one third of Bucharest). This wouldn’t be the first time that a firefighter’s memory is honored this way. Intervention Unit No. 1 is called “Lt. Col. Post Mortem Adrian Barbu” to honor a commander who, in 1997, was stabbed to death by an arsonist. Barbu and Lt. Col. Post Mortem Dumitru Petrescu, who was shot during the Anti-Communist Revolution in 1989 while defending the Military Academy, are the only firefighters to have died in the line of duty in Bucharest in the past 45 years. Neither of them, however, died in a fire.
The funeral service took place the next day, on May 28, in Valea Mare, at the cemetery up the hill. Ungureanu was laid to rest in a relative’s crypt, as his family didn’t own one. Among the participants there were then-minister of interior Vasile Blaga, then-chief inspector of the National Department for Emergency Situations General Vladimir Secară, Duduş, Năstasie, the Olt county prefect, and hundreds of firefighters from Bucharest and neighboring counties. The Olt county Fire Department took care of some of details, especially those pertaining to funeral traditions, the Bucharest Fire Department brought in the military band and the honor guard. Duduş spoke again, praising Ungureanu’s courage and dedication. The grief-stricken parents fainted and received first aid from the ambulance service. Minister Blaga and General Secară promised Iulian he would be hired by the Fire Department to have a steady income and be able to support his family as his brother did. It’s common practice, they said, both in the Army and Interior Ministry, to protect the families of those fallen in the line of duty.
It was everything a hero deserved.
But unease started creeping in among his colleagues, who for the first time became aware of Ungureanu’s humble means – the poverty, how much he must have struggled to make something of himself, what an opportunity it must have been to be accepted in the firefighters’ corps. In a national TV station’s news story about the funeral, one of them said: “He died for a bunch of clothes, for things of no real value.” Another one told me he broke the order to wear the uniform at the funeral because “it made him sick.” Not Ungureanu’s sacrifice or the fact that he was receiving military honors, but the absurdity of his death. And firefighters from another intervention group said that, when their superiors passed them by, they turned their backs, to show contempt for a system unprepared for fires as devastating as the one at Red Dragon.
In the United States, with a population of more than 300 million, about 90 professional and volunteer firefighters are killed in the line of duty every year. There were terrible accidents in Romania too, like the one in the town of Mihăileşti in 2004, when seven firefighters died in the explosion of a truck loaded with ammonium nitrate. In Constanţa, in 2007, an NCO fell seven stories to his death when the safety rope broke. That led to changes in intervention rules and the use of safety ropes is now banned. Most recently, last year, four diver-firefighters died in various accidents across the country. In Bucharest, however, even though the Bucharest Fire Department is in charge of 35 percent of interventions countrywide, no firefighter had been killed since Barbu was stabbed. This is both surprising and sensible.
The Bucharest Fire Department works with only 55 percent of the necessary staff – when the recession started, in 2008, they halted the expansion process they were undergoing and, in the summer of 2011, they restructured the service and laid off about 300 firefighters. Now there are 2,300 firefighters and paramedics rushing to about 65,000 emergencies a year. Almost all the fire engines and ladders (87 percent) have twice exceeded their lifespan. Almost all new engines and ladders are bought by the city hall, not the Ministry of Interior, and lent to the fire stations. Firefighters’ equipment is obsolete: the intervention suits meant to protect them from water are more than five years old and they get soaked immediately (during winter they often get hypothermia by the time they return to the station); boots are made mostly of rubber and they melt easily or quickly get sliced open by broken glass; helmets are made of cheap plastic and can’t protect them from falling objects; gloves are of bad quality, they get wet and give them vapor burns on their hands (many prefer to buy their own better quality gloves or boots). There is no communications system when putting out fires – firefighters call each other on their personal or work mobile phones, instead of communicating via radio, which would be more efficient. Work accidents like electrocution, burns, or cuts happen often because of the inadequate equipment, even though they are not reported as such.
In spite of the lack of up-to-date equipment, no one died in a fire, although the number of fires has increased and they have become bigger, more destructive. The military discipline that guides their work and lives is very strict: the NCOs work out every shift and the number of interventions, as many as 10 in a 24-hour shift, have built sufficient expertise even among those hired in 2006-2007 – that is most of them. The fact that personal safety was never a real issue helped them ignore other shortcomings.
Until Ungureanu died.
Warrant Constantin Gîlcă, 38, a tall man with broad shoulders and visible confidence, speaks of those days with a mixture of anger and sadness. He was one of those who found Ungureanu and brought him out – he went in to look for him without his oxygen mask and he ended up in the hospital himself, with smoke inhalation. They measured the toxicity levels in his lungs and released him early at his request (only two of the firefighters treated for smoke inhalation stayed in the hospital beyond that day).
But Gîlcă, wearing only his underwear and the paper gown from the Emergency Hospital, went back to the fire station, to the dorms. He took Ungureanu’s things – his training jacket that was on his bed, and his pillow – and only after that did he go home, to his worried wife and his two daughters. He didn’t want to leave Ungureanu’s things there, for fear they might get lost. In the front pocket of the jacket he found two large dice. He still doesn’t know why Ionuţ had them. He took his pillow so he could dream of him.
Gîlcă liked Ungureanu from the moment he arrived at Dămăroaia because he was quiet, respectful and he liked sports. He would train three or four times a week at a gym close to home. He watched his diet – in an amateur video shot by Ionuţ at a station barbecue he is the only one eating chicken breast, instead of meatballs, sausages and pork – and he took protein supplements to maintain his body mass. They ended up calling him Johnny Muscle.
As he also grew up in a small town in Olt county, Gîlcă treated Ionuţ as a little brother. He took him along on his family’s weekly outings to the park to rollerblade, he invited him over, they talked a lot on instant messenger. “I taught him about everything I had gone through up until that damn day, about the mistakes I had made,” he says. He kept buzzing him online for a long time after he was gone. Unlike his colleagues, who stopped talking about Ungureanu because “it made them sad,” Gîlcă believes talking helps ease the pain. “I have a huge emptiness in my heart; I am devastated by what happened. Such a young child, he hardly started his life and then he was gone.” Before Red Dragon, Gîlcă had been cleared to be part of the paramedic division – even if you get more emergencies in one shift, the risks are lower and the birth of his second child, in 2009, had made him wearier – but after Ungureanu’s death, he gave up on that plan. “I felt in a way obligated to stay here, out of respect.”
Another colleague, who would not disclose his name, is sorry he didn’t get a chance to say good-bye. He was working the following shift and he woke up at four that morning. Now he says that if he had known there was a fire at Red Dragon, he would have called him to tell him to be careful. He knows that wouldn’t have made a difference, but at least he would have talked to him one more time. As with all NCOs interviewed, he finds it difficult to accept that one of them died during an intervention: “I understand getting hit by a car, having a brick fall on your head while walking down the street, but dying like this in the fire? That’s absurd.”
Firefighters don’t think of death when the alarm goes off. “The only thing on our minds is putting out that fire as best we can, as soon as possible and to try and save as many goods as possible,” says Gîlcă. Lt. Costel Burlibaşa, deputy commander at the Dămăroaia fire station, adds: “My first thought is ‘God, I hope there’s no surprise there!’ Because you don’t know what you’re in for, you’re told: there’s a car burning, there is smoke coming out of an apartment building… But you don’t know if there’s smoke from a pan left on the stove or the entire house is burning.”
After Ungureanu, death became a part of reality.
“I hope no one ever has to go through what we went through those first shifts after he died,” says warrant Claudiu Vlad, Ungureanu’s fire engine colleague. “We had to live with this thought, that we were coming to work, we saw candles lit in front of the garrison and, instead of seeing him, there was a black-rimmed photo of him.” The black-rimed photo is still displayed on the security check cabin at the gate of the station and on the windshield of all fire trucks in Dămăroaia, but also on most of the fire engines in Bucharest. “You just kept expecting him to show up,” says Burlibaşa.
Some of the firefighters actually feared that. They stopped leaving their dorms at night, for fear they might run into him in the hallways. Gîlcă could barely sleep for a month and experienced nightmares, as did the others, classical symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. The same thing happened to the firefighters who saved Comşa, put out the flames and removed his melted mask. An officer close to that group says that, for a long time after the fire, when they were asked questions for the investigation, they would start shaking and crying uncontrollably.
Lieutenant Cristian Tarbu, chief of the psychology service of the Bucharest Fire Department, specialist in defense, public order and national security, says he conducted a post-trauma intervention three to five days after Ungureanu’s death, followed by evaluations after three and six months and that two of firefighters needed counseling. Also, he says he tried to strengthen team spirit and rekindle their sense of duty.
Ungureanu’s colleagues say, however, that the psychologist only performed a formal evaluation, just one time, and they “licked their own wounds.” And they found the most comforting solutions. “It’s not good to hold it in, it’s not good to talk it out either,” says sergeant-major Florin Bratu. “Right then, after his death, we talked and talked and, when we saw it made it worse, we stopped.”
Psychotherapist Răzvan Bălan, a specialist in defense and national security who worked in military units for many years before becoming a therapist, says that post-trauma intervention must be conducted immediately, but only by trained therapists (Tarbu, according to the Psychologists Association, the institution that regulates this profession, is only accredited to perform defense assessments and interventions – prepare soldiers for missions, evaluate them, give them assistance – not psychotherapy). Otherwise, one can make things worse. In the absence of efficient intervention, the PTSD-afflicted can develop panic disorders, depression, neurosis, and their professional conduct can be affected.
Back at Valea Mare, Ionuţ is everywhere. His room is a shrine with countless framed photographs – he looks serious in all of them, except for one where he is wearing his training jacket in the backyard of the fire station and he is smiling. His things – his TV, the keyboard piano he had learnt to play by himself, his mobile phone – are under the table and no one ever touches them. They were all brought the day of the funeral from the apartment Ionuţ was sharing with a colleague. There’s also a bed, clothes, uniforms, and even the food they had packed for him when he left.
Their home is small and in need of repairs. The inside smells of smoke from bad chimneys and the outside smells of animal waste. The fence is frail and crooked. There is no money for repairs between Marin’s pension, what Iulian makes as a day laborer on construction sites and the rituals they have to fulfill in Ionuţ’s memory.
Easter Day was harder than most. Marin left home many times and they knew where to find him: at the grave. Florina and Iulian would bring him back and a little later he would go back again. He was mourning him, as he does every day, as he does in the poems he writes for him that always end with Ionuţ coming back to life: “May the Lord Jesus Christ / and His Holy Mother, Virgin Mary, / open your grave / and bring you back to life, life, life / and healthy back home.”
The villagers think the family has gotten rich from the money they received from the Fire Department. When they find them in the cemetery, the neighbors ask whether they received a new installment. But all the family received from the Bucharest Fire Department was Ionuţ’s salary (his basic salary, with no food stipend and no benefits) for 10 months, as the law requires, about 2,300 euros. His colleagues from all the fire stations in Bucharest pitched in and handed Iulian some money at the funeral.
If Ionuţ had life insurance, money wouldn’t have been such an issue for the family. At least the financial support they used to get from him would have been covered by the insurance claim. But firefighters don’t get life insurance. The Ministry of Interior doesn’t have the money for this and will not have it anytime in the near future – in June 2011, because of budget cuts, firefighters’ food stipend was reduced to almost nothing, which lowered the average salary of NCOs from 350 to 230 euros. Those who tried to get life insurance on their own were turned down because of the dangerous nature of their job. So, in case of death, there is no safety net for their families. They remain, as one of the NCOs put it, at the mercy of their colleagues.
The National Department for Emergency Situations is trying to find other means to support firefighters’ families. Major Orlando Şchiopu, commander of the Intervention Group No. 2, says that he asked Iulian to come work as a firefighter at Dămăroaia, “in the same truck, in the same bed, with the same locker and the same stripes” as his brother. Iulian, who is 22 now, is still bitter about that moment: “Does he think it is that easy?” He can’t imagine replacing his brother entirely. He asked whether he could get a job at the local Fire Department, so he could be closer to his parents. They said yes, but it turned out they didn’t have a budget for an extra employee, so they said they would give him a job in the neighboring county, Argeş. He agreed, thinking he was going to manage the distance somehow – the important thing was that he had a job. But he is still waiting for it, 18 months later. Major Şchiopu says it is only a bureaucratic delay and that it will be solved soon.
There is no moral consolation either for the family or the firefighters. A week after the funeral, the fire station put up a marble plaque that said “Intervention Group No. 2/ Ensign PM Ungureanu Ionuţ Cristian / Dămăroaia Fire Station.” But, actually, neither the fire station nor the intervention group were officially renamed. Major Ovidiu Pană, head of media relations at Bucharest Fire Department, says that it is still an ongoing process and the institution is waiting for approval from superiors.
In July 2010, six officers, 14 NCOs and Ungureanu were rewarded by the President for the courage shown at the Red Dragon fire. They were awarded the Order of Bravery and Faith, becoming knights. The NCOs, Gîlcă and Bratu among them, received a medal by the same name. Comşa, who had gone from breathing on his own again to “fit for duty” by the beginning of 2011, was not among them. (Pană says the nominations were not made by the Bucharest Fire Department,– the firefighters argue that the list was drafted by one of the commanders in charge at the fire – how else would the President have known their names?) Firefighters find it hard to understand why a man they dubbed “The Survivor” had not received the same public recognition as them. The official reason is that he had already been promoted from sergeant major to warrant, and he couldn’t have been awarded another distinction, says Şchiopu. “You can’t reward someone twice, just as you can’t punish someone twice for the same action.” At his initiative, though, in March 2011, there was an informal ceremony at Dămăroaia where the Intervention Group No. 2 gave Comşa a symbolic award, Firefighter of the Year 2010. Şchiopu says it’s an idea he’d had for a long time and it seemed natural to start with Comşa. He says it was not to make up for him not getting the medal.
The Military Prosecutor’s Office started an investigation the day after the Red Dragon fire to determine whether any foul play or negligence had led to Ungureanu’s death, which was considered a work accident. More than one year later, there is no resolution (the prosecutor had told Iulian that there would be one by the end of April 2011), and his death remains an injustice his colleagues fear will never be solved. Many worry Ungureanu himself will be found at fault – which means the system would not change and will continue to be just as unprepared as it is now. Some have already seen a change in some of their superiors’ attitude. Some officers said he died because he was inexperienced, and that it doesn’t make him a hero. Others, in off the record interviews, tried to minimize his death by counting the other recent losses from across the country, saying only the American firefighters who died at the World Trade Center are heroes or issuing elaborated definitions of heroism (“You are a hero only if you take a risk and tell somebody else about it and then something happens to you,” said one officer).
Even in the absence of an official outcome to the investigation, Ungureanu’s death seems to have been caused by the confluence of freak events rather than by a misjudgment (whether his own or his superior’s). The magnitude and violence of the fire, the flashover (an extremely rare phenomenon), the building (a metallic structure highly unstable under heat), the lack of a communications system, his fatigue (he hadn’t slept in over 24 hours, and he had back pains), the distance to the exit, the fracture, the fire’s unpredictability (no matter how much experience the commanders had, this was something they had never seen in their career) and the fact that the rescue team couldn’t go in for a long time because of the flames. All these factors, combined, led to the death of a firefighter in the line of duty. Whether or not he is a hero should be beyond questioning, no matter how he died, say his colleagues. “For what he went through in the moment he knew there was no way out,” says Bratu. “For that, he is a hero.”
In the cemetery up the hill you can hear only Marin’s wail and Florina’s muffled weeping. Ionuţ’s borrowed crypt is covered in flowers again, mostly carnations. Inside, you can see his photo and his borrowed red helmet. Outside, leaning against the crypt, is his new tombstone, a dark grey marble block donning a photo of Ionuţ in his uniform, but not the official one from the Bucharest Fire Department. It’s a photo Iulian and some of the firefighters use as a profile photo on Yahoo! Messenger. In Ionuţ’s computer it was called “Me at work.” He took it himself in the dorms.
It’s May 21, 2011, the one-year commemoration of Ionuţ’s death. Thirty firefighters, donning dress uniforms, join the family. Eighteen of them used to share a shift with him, but there are also the station’s commander, major Daniel Buceanu, Şchiopu and firefighters from other shifts and other fire stations. They all carry candles. Gîlcă and Bratu stand by the family, Comşa a little further back, by the officers. When Marin laments, “I will never see you again,” Gîlcă wipes the tears that run down his cheeks and pool under his chin.
After the religious service, everyone returns to the Ungureanu home, in the courtyard. The mother’s face lights up when she sees them all sitting at the long table. “This really was Ionuţ’s meal,” she says. “That’s how I wanted it to be, with his colleagues.”
She, Marin, and Iulian got caught up in tasks and serving the guests and they stop crying. At some point, Şchiopu hands them some money raised from firefighters from several stations. It’s about 500 euros, which will help them pay for the expenses of this commemoration. The tombstone, another 500 euros, has already been paid for out of money Iulian made working in construction.
The firefighters don’t stay long. They would meet the family a few days later, on May 26, at the fire station, for the inauguration of Ionuţ’s bust. The Intervention Group No. 2 built the monument right in front of the station, between the access road and the garage. (Pană says the monument was paid for by the Bucharest Firefighters’ Professional Association and cost about 8,000 – 8,500 euros; Burlibaşa says the colleagues contributed too, with symbolic amounts). Şchiopu says he considered this gesture “a moral obligation” to the family and the colleagues. “He is our hero, no matter what bystanders say.”
The monument seems to have brought some consolation to Ungureanu’s family, who saw his sacrifice acknowledged. For his colleagues, the statue doesn’t bring too many answers and doesn’t erase what happened after Ungureanu’s death. With more metal buildings that quickly turn into deathtraps for firefighters – as was the case at Red Dragon, but also with many others – and with more and more obsolete equipment, the firefighters know and say, on and off the record, that the next death is not far away. Before they lost Ionuţ Ungureanu they didn’t know what it would mean for their colleagues and their families if they didn’t make it back home.
Now they do.
Editor’s note: This story was originally published in June 2011. Marin Ungureanu, Ionuţ’s father, killed himself on September 16, 2011, only a few days after local firefighters honored his son on Firefighters’ Day. He was buried on September 18, the day Iulian turned 22.