Mark Falkenhan fought his first fire 37 years ago.
While Falkenhan and his older cousins made Jiffy Pop popcorn, the wrapping caught fire on the stove. As his cousins ran for help, Falkenhan stood firm, grabbed a pot of water and doused the flames.
He was 6 years old.
The popcorn fire incident of 1974 was the first of many quick thinking and heroic acts by Falkenhan, the 43-year-old volunteer firefighter who died Wednesday night battling a four-alarm blaze in Hillendale. Falkenhan was volunteering with the Lutherville Volunteer Fire Co. on the night of his death and was helping with an effort that rescued two residents from the flames.
An estimated crowd of 3,000 people, including Gov. Martin O’Malley and Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, gathered Monday at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in Baltimore to remember Falkenhan, a married father of two sons from Middle River. He was the first firefighter to die in the line of duty since 1984.
Falkenhan was also a former chief at Middle River Volunteer Ambulance & Rescue Co. and a career firefighter and paramedic for the Baltimore County Fire Department for 16 years before joining the U.S. Secret Service in 2006.
Baltimore County Fire Chief John J. Hohman said Falkenhan, whose assignments included the Fire-Rescue Academy and several stations across the county, helped make the department better through his leadership and his ability to teach at every assignment. Hohman used Falkenhan’s own words to describe him as he read an excerpt from his 2006 resignation letter from the department.
“The man who dares, the man who decides what he wants to achieve and works until his dream comes true,” Hohman read to the packed church. “The man who will alter his course when he must and bravely begin something new. The man who’s determined to make this world better, who’s willing to learn anything. The man who keeps trying and doing his best is the man who succeeds.”
Hohman was just one of thousands of firefighters, paramedics, emergency medical technicians and police officers from Baltimore County and across the country—some from as far as Seattle—who came to honor Falkenhan as he received full firefighter honors during a 75-minute service.
It took almost an hour just for the procession of uniformed personnel to file into the church. Once inside, they marched up three at a time to the American flag-draped casket to salute their fallen brother.
Along with Hohman, speakers during the service reflected on Falkenhan’s life as a career and volunteer firefighter as well as his time as an instructor with the Secret Service.
Robert Pedrick was one of those speakers. Pedrick was chief of Middle River Volunteer Ambulance & Rescue Co. when Falkenhan first joined the company in 1986 and was an early mentor to him.
However, Pedrick said he knew that Falkenhan’s energy and motivation would one day make the student more knowledgeable than the mentor.
“Mark loved to share his knowledge and skill with others,” Pedrick said. “I strongly believe that what Mark has done has made the world a better place. I can’t imagine how many people’s lives Mark has saved or made better through his teaching.”
Randy Stair, Falkenhan's supervisor at the Secret Service and a former Baltimore County paramedic, said he learned a lot about Falkenhan when he asked him why he left the fire department for the Secret Service. The new job required a longer commute and many travel assignments.
Falkenhan’s motivation for joining the fire department was his uncle, William Falkenhan, who died earlier this month at the age of 91.
But his motivation for joining the Secret Service was his father, Casper, who was a World War II hero. The 85-year-old elder Falkenhan attended the funeral in a wheelchair, suffering from cancer and the effects of a recent surgery.
“My dad is a patriot,” Stair recalled Falkenhan saying. “He fought in the Battle of the Bulge. I’ve never done anything for my country and I want to do something for my country like my dad. I want to make sure the people taking care of the president are trained as good as they can be and they’re taken care of, too.”
Following the church service, with a crowd of uniformed men and women watching, Falkenhan’s casket was placed in an antique fire engine from the Lutherville Volunteer Fire Co. as “America, the Beautiful” played on bagpipes and drums in the background.
Falkenhan was then transported to Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens in Timonium with a funeral procession that stretched for miles and included an estimated 144 Class A vehicles, 75 utility vehicles and dozens of police vehicles and hundreds of civilian cars.
Signs of respect for Falkenhan were evident throughout the procession to the cemetery as motorists and other career and volunteer fire stations stopped along I-83 to salute him. This doesn't even include all of the online tributes that have been created.
Once at the cemetery, as is tradition for a fallen firefighter, the fire department called out a final alarm for Falkenhan that was broadcast throughout the county dispatch system. A flyover consisting of helicopters from the Baltimore County Police, the Maryland State Police and the Secret Service, helped conclude the service.
Gladys Falkenhan, Mark’s wife, released a statement thanking the public for their support during this difficult time.
“I would like to thank everyone for their support and prayers as we deal with the loss of Mark,” she said. “He was a great husband and an amazing father to his sons—Christian and Garrett—and he will be dearly missed.
“Mark was known as a firefighter and a paramedic, but he was much more. He was a devoted loving husband and father. He was also a son, brother, uncle, friend, teacher and mentor to so many people. He had a smile that went across his whole face and lit up any room he ever entered. He never met someone who didn’t automatically become his friend. All he ever wanted in life was to help others.”
The statement continued: “We would not be able to get through this tragic event without the outpouring of love and support from family, friends and the general public along with the love and assistance for the Baltimore County Fire Department, the U.S. Secret Service, Lutherville Volunteer Fire Co., Middle River Volunteer Ambulance and Rescue Co. and countless other career and volunteer fire stations from throughout the country.
“We take some solace in knowing that Mark did not die alone in that apartment fire and that his last act on Earth was risking his life to save someone else’s,” the statement said. “Mark spent his entire adult life in public service and we have some peace knowing that his impact on this world will be felt for many years to come.”