December 18, 1985, thirty years ago today, lives were changed forever and the way things were done were changed forever as well. A bitter cold Wednesday morning when the siren in New Oxford Pennsylvania blew for a structure fire just a few miles down the road in neighboring town Abbottstown Pa. The fire was in a two story, multiple family occupied building just east of the square on East King Street. The fire was a working fire on arrival of the first arriving apparatus from Abbottstown Fire Company, and it quickly escalated to a multiple alarm fire.
Sadly on this fire, the second due engine from New Oxford Fire Department had mechanical issues and rolled over as it rounded the traffic roundabout, ejecting the lone fire fighter riding on the tail board (rear of the apparatus) onto the street, causing catastrophic injuries to her. Firefighter and EMT Kathryn Murren Hippensteel, was gone forever just thirteen days later as she died of her injuries sustained at Adams County Box 12 on December 18, 1985. Kathy Hippensteel was the first firefighter to be killed in the line of duty in Adams County and the first female to die in the line of duty in the state of Pennsylvania.
Kathy; or Kate as many of us knew her was a volunteer firefighter and EMT. She gave up countless hours of her personal time to serve her community, protecting them from fire as well as assisting the sick and injured by being an EMT on the ambulance. Kathy was “one of the guys”, she drank beer with us, she played cards with us and she swore at us when needed. She would certainly tell you if you were number one when needed. Kathy was one of us. She was well respected in the firehouse, as well as at her employer, Aero Oil Company located within the borough.
Through this tragedy, Kathy unknowingly helped save many others in the fire service from serious injury or death. From that fateful day, no New Oxford firefighter ever again road on the tailboard being held on only by a seat belt type strap. Eventually, “tail boarding” would be outlawed just about everywhere. Nowadays, firefighters all across the nation ride inside enclosed cabs, sitting down and seat belted in.
Kathy was my friend. She was a “brother”….yes, I said brother, as Kathy didn’t wish to be treated any differently because she was a female, she was one of us. She did what her male counterparts did, she pulled hand lines, she made interior attacks of fires, she ran the Hurst tools on entrapment crashes, and she cried as well when the particulars of a run were just a bit too much to handle after returning to quarters and it all sank in.
I can honestly say, for the past thirty years to the day, I personally have never not thought of her on this date. I can also honestly say when I go past the memorial located in front of the fire house on North Bolton Street, I always, if only for a brief few seconds, look at that monument and think of Kathy, not how she died, but how she served our department, our community and her smile. This memorial means a lot to so many, it is a place to honor our friend, our fallen firefighter and for some, their family member and loved one. It can never be taken for granted, thirty years after that fateful day, or sixty years, it is a permanent, or should be a permanent reminder of her commitment and sacrifice to her home town community.
I hope everyone in the fire service, especially here in Adams County Pennsylvania, can take a brief moment today, to think of Kathy, if you knew her, take a moment and visit her memorial or her grave site, remember her, her wit, her charm and her sacrifice, then go drink a beer in her memory, she would if the roles were reversed, that I can guarantee. If you didn’t know Kathy, take a few more moments of your time, and research the incident that took such a good person from us way to soon, and learn from the incident, think about the ways thinks are today verses 1985 and then, thank her for her sacrifice, as you are much safer today responding to incidents in part because this woman, our friend, company 13’s second female member, firefighter and EMT Kathy Hippensteel gave her life in the line of duty, thirty years ago today. We owe it to her to keep her memory alive.
Kathy, may your forever rest in peace.
Never Forget is not just a catch phrase, it is a commitment.