Remembering Al Sondej – Died in the Line of Duty, March 16, 1988

Updated January 27, 2018 – The Hyattsville Volunteer Fire Department spends this weekend remembering our fallen hero, Alan Patrick Sondej, a live-in volunteer firefighter who died March 16, 1988 from complications of burn injuries sustained battling a house fire at 2020 Wardman Road in the early morning hours of January 27 of the same year.

Al, 37, was a graduate student at the University of Maryland and was scheduled for his last night with the department before heading back overseas to teach sustainable agriculture techniques — also a volunteer position. He had been a member of the department for nearly 11 years to the day of his injury.

The Wardman Road call was for a house fire with a reported woman trapped inside. On board Truck 1, Al and the crew went in to search. Flames overtook him in a reported flashover, and he was badly burned over 60% of his body. His incredible physical condition helped him survive and get himself out of the home.

For the next seven weeks, Al fought for his life at Washington Hospital Center. He briefly appeared to be recovering — but in the evening hours of March 16, word came that he had succumbed to his injuries.

It was later discovered that the woman had escaped the fire prior to the fire department’s arrival.

The department’s ladder truck is now dedicated to Al.

In the coming weeks, a major program to remember the life of Al Sondej will be announced including an event at the station in March. We will post updates about this on our Facebook and Twitter pages as well as on our website.

While a student at the Notre Dame University, Sondej took up the cause of world hunger during his undergraduate years. He managed to collect $25,000 from the students outside the school’s dining hall (pictures below), which was donated to the Third World Relief Fund and other relief organizations. He graduated from Notre Dame with a degree in sociology.

After graduation, Sondej began an internship with the Overseas Development Council where he traveled across the U.S. to speak on the issue of world hunger. Sondej moved to Washington, D.C. in 1977 to continue his education at Maryland and the Catholic University of America. During that time he worked with the Vatican and did research on ways to solve the hunger problem across the globe.

The Notre Dame Alumni Association’s 85,000 members honored Sondej posthumously in 1990 for his efforts by presenting his family with the Dr.
Thomas Dooley Award. The recipient of the award is someone who works to allow others to have the gift of life.

Notre Dame Magazine: Remembering Alan Sondej

Student dies of burns sustained attempting rescue

By BRYAN SMITH
Reprinted with permission from The Diamondback
Originally Published: Monday, March 21, 1988

In the blustery chill of a brisk spring afternoon, fire Engine 11 rumbled to a halt in front of St. Mark’s Catholic Church bearing the coffin of Alan Sondej, a volunteer firefighter who died of injuries attempting to rescue occupants of a burning home.

Members of the Hyattsville Volunteer Fire Department, where Sondej had served for 11 years, covered their badges with black tape and stood at attention as family members emerged from their cars, holding each other for support. They joined a crowd of about 500 who gathered for the funeral service in Hyattsville to pay homage to the 37-year-old campus graduate geography student.

Alfred Sondej, Alan’s father, watched grimly as the coffin was taken into the church, then slumped over, weeping.

Known affectionately as “Big Al,” Sondej entered a burning house in Avondale January 27 to rescue supposedly trapped victims when flames suddenly engulfed the room and set fire to his clothes.

But the lone occupant had escaped the house just prior to Sondej’s arrival.

Sondej received burns over most of his body and was transported to the Washington Hospital Center MedStar Burn Unit with third-degree burns. He remained there until his death from burn complications last Wednesday.

“Once again we are reminded of how dangerous the job of firefighting can be,” Prince George’s County Fire Chief Jim Estepp eulogized. “Alan was destined to be a firefighter and blessed with God-given attributes and good nature that made him truly exceptional.

“When asked to describe Al, friends may say that he was witty, extremely intelligent, always willing to help … The descriptions vary, but everyone agrees — Al Sondej was a truly unique individual and a joy to know. I believe the term ‘treasure’ is a very accurate description,” Estepp said.

“He had a real love for life and for people,” said Maj. Frank Colea, a firefighter and close friend of Sondej.

Colea described Sondej as witty, compassionate and committed to non-violence. “Despite the fact that he was 6-foot-2-inch and tremendously strong physically, he would only use his physical strength on behalf of someone in trouble,” Colea said.

Harold Brodsky, an associate geography professor here and Sondej’s graduate adviser agreed.

“He was a scholar, but he didn’t look like one. He was this big, brawny fellow … Physically he didn’t look like a bookworm, but he was.” he said.

During the funeral service, Sondej’s sister, visibly shaken, spoke about her brother. “We cry today as a family, but they are tears of joy not of pain, for being blessed with someone as special as Al,” she said.

As the 1 1/2-hour ceremony ended, Sondej’s coffin was lifted back into Fire Engine 11.

The crowd watched silently as pallbearers set the coffin back in its place on the engine.

The family members filed out of the cathedral and paused, while some 150 officers and firefighters in full uniform stood in rows at attention, giving final salute to their fallen friend and collegue.