Fallen Baltimore Firefighters Inspire Families to Keep Going

Rodney Pitts III and Dillon Rinaldo died as the result of a fire in the Woodmere neighborhood.

Tribune Content Agency

Dan Belson
Baltimore Sun

Monica Gant sometimes gets little reminders that her son is still with her.

For starters, she wears a necklace bearing a picture of her only son, Rodney Pitts III. Attached is another metal piece impressed with the Baltimore City firefighter’s fingerprint.

Then, there are day-to-day things, like the occasional smell of smoke in a small part of the house. Objects that fall. Recurring appearances of ladybugs, seen as a symbol of spiritual guidance. When Gant is feeling down, sometimes a song by The Temptations, a group for which the mother and son shared a love, will come on. Sometimes, it’s just internal.

“I’m like, ‘You with me; you gave me a sign,’” she said, describing the profound, comforting moments as her son checking in on her.

“That’s what we do. He’s a momma’s boy,” she said.

Pitts, a 31-year-old father of two, died in October as he and fellow firefighters responded to a blaze that ripped through homes in the Woodmere neighborhood. Four other firefighters were hurt. One of them, Baltimore Fire Lt. Dillon Rinaldo, died the next week after being injured while battling the Oct. 19 blaze on the 5200 block of Linden Heights Avenue and rendering aid to Pitts.

Pitts and Rinaldo will be honored Friday at the statewide Fallen Heroes Day ceremony at Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens in Timonium. The event will honor six other Maryland public safety workers recently killed in the line of duty, as well as three others who died before the annual ceremony was established. They are:

  • Firefighter/EVD Henry W. Eckhardt Jr., of the Reisterstown Volunteer Fire Company, who died of occupational cancer in 2021.
  • Deputy Chief Craig E. Ralston, of the Ellicott City Volunteer Fire Department and master firefighter with the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, who died in 2022 from complications of COVID-19 contracted on the job.
  • Deputy Scott C. McArdle, of the Anne Arundel County Sheriff’s Office, who died after a heart attack on duty in 2022.
  • Firefighter Mark R. Fisher Jr., of the Montgomery County Department of Fire and Rescue Service and the Frederick County Department of Fire & Rescue Service, who died of occupational cancer in 2014.
  • Firefighter/EMT Bryan P. Hamilton, of the Naval District Washington Fire Department and Bryans Road Volunteer Fire Department, who died in 2021 of COVID-19 contracted on the job.
  • Firefighter Brice C. Trossbach, of the Naval District Washington Fire Department, who also volunteered with the Leonardtown Volunteer Fire Department and Bay District Volunteer Fire Department and died battling a fire in St. Mary’s County in 2023.
  • Baltimore firefighters Charles H. Jerscheid Sr. and Joseph S. Taylor, who died in 1956 after a tractor-trailer struck their fire engine as they were responding to a cellar fire.
  • Baltimore Police Department Officer John C. Williams, who died in 1967 after his police vehicle caught fire.

Pitts’ and Rinaldo’s graves were adorned with mementos during a visit last week. Gant has visited her son’s grave about every other day, as well as every Saturday, over the past six months.

Rodney was always a good kid growing up, who was respectful and liked to play and talk and make people laugh, his mother said in the cemetery’s quaint Fallen Heroes garden.

“He never wanted to see anybody sad,” Gant said. He’d make people smile by cracking a joke, smiling at them himself, making a face or just by giving a certain look.

Pitts spent some time with other family members, but a lot of the time, it was just him and his mom living together in East Baltimore and later Rosedale.

He was always an “old soul,” his mother said. He liked to eat, specifically spaghetti and meatballs, as well as string beans. He wasn’t always the best cook, but he learned to grill and made some good ribs. He made friends easily, and his mother was always proud of him for hanging around only “positive people” while growing up and staying away from bad influences.

A graduate of Digital Harbor High School, the Baltimore native had dreamed of becoming a firefighter since childhood, his mother said. He had worked other jobs, too, to support his family as he worked to get through the process.

“He liked everything firefighters had to offer” — the fellowship, being in a uniform and riding in a truck, his mother said. Most of all, he liked helping people.

It took a couple of tries, but Pitts kept working to make it happen, with encouragement from his mother.

One day, he gleefully came through the door and said, “Ma, I made it.”

Pitts graduated from the fire academy in August 2023. It didn’t change him as a person, but he was proud he had achieved his dream, his mother said.

“What I want people to take from this, especially those trying to become firefighters, is to not give up,” Gant said. “Trust the process, don’t give up, and don’t be afraid. Because he wasn’t.”

Pitts had a daughter, Arianna, and a younger son, 3-year-old Hendrix. With his own kids, Pitts had that same bond that he shared with his mother.

“He was like the model father,” said Gant, who is now helping to care for the kids. “He was like that old-school dad who did what he had to do to provide for his children. And he encouraged them to keep going without a doubt.”

The family took a trip a few weeks ago for Arianna’s 9th birthday, her first since her father’s death. While they were away, they noticed a ladybug in their room each night, a sign they interpreted as Pitts being with them, too.

Overall, the kids are adjusting to their new world.

“Arianna’s like, ‘My dad’s a hero. He’s a hero,’” Gant said. She tells her granddaughter to honor her father by living like him: “You got to show respect for people and go for what you want to go for.”

Rinaldo’s family has similarly encouraged others to live like the fire officer who had the “heart of a lion” and was posthumously appointed as a captain. At his funeral, his fiancee, Lauren Ridlon, said her wish for was others to “live like Dillon” and to complete his bucket list items — learning guitar left-handed, singing “The Wild Rover” in Dublin’s Temple Bar, running a 5K. People have done those things in his honor.

“That has meant a lot to me,” Ridlon said last week. Some of Dillon’s friends have started the Captain Dillon Rinaldo Foundation to support injured firefighters as well as the families of families affected by line-of-duty deaths. The Baltimore fire officers have also been “very amazing” with their support of Rinaldo’s family, she said.

As Rinaldo’s family, friends and colleagues have healed over the past six months, they’ve been learning how the fire captain would want his legacy to be honored, and the former “firehouse kid”  has become more of a part of them, she said.

“He wants us to be OK,” she said.

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