Ross fire policeman died while on duty, feds rule
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Amy Warrick said she began to cry when she got a call from Hope Janke, a top administrator with the federal Public Safety Officers' Benefits Program.
Following more than four years of hearings and appeals, the agency had concluded that her father, Ross Fire Police Capt. John A. Brenckle, had died in the line of duty.
While that ruling made his family eligible for federal death benefits, Mrs. Warrick said it was much more important to her that her father's name would be added to the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial. She is the beneficiary and will receive more than $260,000, but says she hasn't yet thought about how she will spend it.
That ceremony is scheduled for Oct. 4 in Emmitsburg, Md. Mrs. Warrick and about two dozen family members and friends plan to attend.
"He had dedicated his life to fire service and the fire police," she said during an interview last week. "He deserves that recognition."
Mr. Brenckle was 57 when he died on Sept. 23, 2004. The then-Allegheny County Coroner Dr. Cyril Wecht ruled that the cause of death was a blood-borne infection that resulted from his exposure to bacteria in floodwaters.
Mr. Brenckle and other members of the Ross Fire Police had been directing traffic and providing other emergency services after storms from Hurricane Ivan caused major damage throughout southwestern Pennsylvania.
Ron Siarnicki, the executive director of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, said the unusual circumstances around Mr. Brenckle's death helped to explain why it took several years for federal investigators to reach their conclusion.
According to the Public Safety Officers' Benefits Program Web site, the agency provides payments to survivors of police and firefighters whose deaths are the result of a traumatic injury, stroke or heart attack suffered while carrying out their duties. Obvious cases include firefighters killed in a building collapse or a police officer shot by a suspect. "In this case -- a blood-borne infection -- it was necessary to make a direct connection back to the cause, and it took time to do that," Mr. Siarnicki said.
Bill Linkenheimer, president of the Ross Fire Police, said he and Mr. Brenckle had been working together on McKnight Road in Ross on Sept. 17, 2004, the day that rains from Hurricane Ivan drenched the area.
While Mr. Brenckle also volunteered in Etna and Millvale over the next two days, doctors believe that the bacteria entered his bloodstream through an ulcer on his leg sometime during that first day in Ross. Although Mr. Brenckle had both diabetes and high blood pressure, pathologist Dr. Bennett Omalu concluded that his general health would have allowed him to live another 15 to 20 years, had he not been exposed to the deadly bacteria.
During an interview at the Ross Fire Police headquarters, Mr. Linkenheimer brought out a manila folder about 11?2 inches thick and filled with documents connected to Mr. Brenckle's case.
After an initial rejection from the Public Safety Officers' Benefit Program, Mrs. Warrick sought assistance from former Ross solicitor Donald Gates to build a case proving that her father's death resulted from his fire police work. She; her husband, Paul; Mr. Linkenheimer; and fire police officers Chuck Merlino and John Brown Sr. gathered evidence, attended hearings and endured several rejections before the federal agency finally ruled that Mr. Brenckle's death was service related.
Mr. Brenckle, who grew up in Franklin Park, was a graduate of North Allegheny High School. He had worked for 39 years as a crew supervisor for Equitable Gas. His late father, Tony Brenckle, was a volunteer firefighter, as was his godfather, the late Bill Miller, of Bellevue.
He joined the Berkeley Hills Volunteer Fire Department -- one of eight departments that serve Ross -- in the early 1970s. Along with Mr. Linkenheimer, he was one of the organizers of the township's unified fire police department. The fire police provide traffic control during fires, parades and other community events. The all-volunteer force has about two dozen members.
Mr. Brenckle followed Mr. Linkenheimer as fire police president, serving in that post for 25 years.
"He built up this organization," Mr. Linkenheimer said. The fire police headquarters and garage, located next to the township public works department on Cemetery Lane, was named in honor of Mr. Brenckle in 2005.
Mr. Brenckle was about 6 feet 10 inches tall and weighed about 265 pounds. "He was big but he was not intimidating," his daughter said.
When a fire or emergency call came through, her father would head immediately to the scene, she recalled. As a girl of 7 or 8, she learned to wait in the car until he completed his volunteer duties.
Her family's connection with emergency services continues. Her husband is president of the Laurel Gardens Volunteer Fire Co. and a fire police captain.
While usually a quiet man, Mr. Brenckle had a sense of humor, Mr. Linkenheimer said.
Fire police often have to deal with impatient motorists who are upset about being directed to follow detours, he said. One driver was very persistent about continuing down Sewickley-Oakmont Road even though it had been closed because of an emergency.
When the man demanded additional information about why the street was closed, Mr. Brenckle quietly offered him an explanation. "There is a spaceship down there," he told the driver.
The motorist turned around and drove away.
First Published September 23, 2009 12:00 am