A year after her little brother’s death, Shelly Brezicki said her family still thinks about Gene Kirchner every single day.
“We had Gene’s unveiling yesterday,” Brezicki said on April 28. “Every day, we remember that Gene’s not here.”
Her brother, a member of the Reisterstown Volunteer Fire Company, was just 25 when he died eight days after being critically injured while trying to rescue someone from a house fire. A resident of the Reisterstown house, Steven Starr, also died in the fire.
Kirchner joined the company as a junior firefighter at 14, and his twin brother, Will, and Brezicki also volunteer there.
For the fire company, Brezicki said, her brother’s death was a sobering reminder of the vulnerable situations in which firefighters instinctively place themselves.
“We, as firefighters, don’t think about the risks that we take when we’re out on calls,” she said. “I think when something like this happens it’s sort of a reality check about the dangers we face on every single call we go out on.”
Kirchner and three others — Perryville firefighter Capt. David Barr Jr., Prince George’s County marine fire rescue volunteer Lt. James D. Brooks Sr. and Baltimore County police officer Jason Schneider — were honored at the 29th annual Fallen Heroes Day at Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens on May 2, exactly one year after Kirchner’s death.
“They wouldn’t give a second thought to their acts of bravery,” said Laurie DeYoung, WPOC radio host and the event’s keynote speaker. “The ultimate act of love is someone who’s willing to lay down their life for another.”
Also speaking at the event was Gladys Falkenhan, widow of Lutherville volunteer firefighter Mark Falkenhan, who was the first Baltimore County firefighter to die in the line of duty in more than 25 years in 2011. He left behind Gladys and their two sons, now 9 and 18.
While she said it has not been easy, she found support in the firefighter community and is training to be a counselor to families who have lost loved ones in the line of duty.
“Our family has learned to live its new life,” said Falkenhan.
Speaking to that subject was Karmen Walker Brown, the wife of Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, who lost her first husband, Sgt. Anthony Walker of the Prince George’s County Police Department, in 2003.
“Losing someone you love, no matter how you lose them, it changes your life forever,” said Brown. “None of us could choose what happened to our loved ones, but we can choose how to remember them, and we can choose to live our lives to the fullest.”
And Brezicki hopes others will choose to remember her brother for what he did.
“Our biggest hope is that people remember that Gene ran into a burning building to save a stranger, and there is nothing much more heroic than that,” she said. “He ran into a building fully knowing the risk that was involved to save someone he didn’t know.”
Kirchner, a graduate of Owings Mills High School, was remembered as a dedicated firefighter who was either at the fire station, with family or at his job as a dispatch controller with Butler Medical Transport. The Reisterstown fire company posthumously awarded him its Medal of Honor, but Brezicki remembers another gesture that meant the world to her and her family.
The day of Kirchner’s funeral, not only did other fire companies step up to take calls in the Reisterstown company’s area so the department could mourn, but the streets were lined with people, from the station’s Main Street firehouse to Har Sinai Congregation in Owings Mills to Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens in Lutherville-Timonium.
Brezicki has an even fonder, more vivid memory, of the day her brother and his twin, Will, were born and how it changed the family dynamic.
“I remember thinking, ‘I’m no longer the baby, there’s now someone else to be the baby,’” she said. “It gave me the opportunity to be the big sister, and I just loved that role.”