As hundreds of firefighters stood in their dress uniforms, Baltimore City Fire Department Engine 29 arrived after the almost 26-mile procession from the Duda-Ruck Funeral Home of Dundalk, carrying the casket of their fallen brother, Rodney Pitts III.
Mourners dressed in fire engine red and black, and others wore T-shirts emblazoned with, “A Baltimore Hero,” wiped away tears and leaned on each other as it was carried up the steps. The sea of first responders saluted in silence.
Pitts, 31, a firefighter and EMT at Engine 29 who had just completed one year of service, was fatally injured on Oct. 19 fighting a two-alarm fire that engulfed multiple rowhomes in the 5200 block of Linden Heights Avenue. A second firefighter, Lt. Dillon Rinaldo, later died from his injuries.
Three others, Lt. Keith Brooks and firefighters Tavon Marshall and Seth Robbins, were treated at the hospital and released.
“It’s just a reality of our job,” said Matthew Coster, president of Baltimore Firefighters IAFF Local 734, who added that the fire was the first time that Pitts rode on the engine. “You can do everything right in this job, and still get killed or injured doing what you love to do.”
First responders, city and state leaders and family members gathered on Friday at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, on North Charles Street below West Northern Parkway in Baltimore, to honor Pitts’ memory at a funeral service. The event drew thousands of people, some of whom came from other states to give Pitts a farewell befitting a hero.
Numerous fire apparatuses lined Charles Street including two trucks with their ladders extended. A crisp American flag billowed in the breeze between them. Inside the cathedral, letters and drawings from Baltimore schoolchildren were hung on pillars, thanking Pitts for his service.
Elected leaders recalled during the funeral how Pitts dreamed of becoming a firefighter and was a loving father who worked multiple jobs to support his two children.
Speaking during the service, Lt. Gov. Aruna Miller said brotherhood and sisterhood are not just words for firefighters but “an unbreakable bond of solidarity and shared purpose.”
Pitts, she said, “defined what it means to be a hero in the big things he did and in the little things he did through small acts of kindness and everyday compassion.”
He would stop in unannounced at the home of his grandmother, Debbie, to hang out and help. And he spent time with his two children, Arianna and Hendrix, Miller said.
“Rodney defined what it means to be a firefighter,” Miller said. “Embodying the highest ideals of service and bravery. Putting the needs of others before his own. Being a pillar of support and safety in Baltimore City — and for his family and friends.”
Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott addressed Pitts’ family members directly during the service, stating “all of Baltimore is deeply sorry for your loss.”
“There is nothing more that our city could possibly ask for than proud, dedicated public servants like Rodney Pitts,” Scott said.
Following the program, Pitts’ cousin, Nathan, said he was a loving father who worked multiple jobs to support his family.
“I think that’s what hurts the most,” he said, “is knowing that they got to grow up without him.”
He said his cousin had a lot of ups and downs but kept pushing through to graduate from the Baltimore fire academy on July 31. That’s a moment that he described as “even inspiring for me.”
Pitts’ uncle, Michael Willis, described him as “fun loving” and a “nice guy.”
Willis said his nephew got along with people and would tell jokes. He loved fishing, which he used to do on his grandfather’s boat on the Chesapeake Bay.
Fire companies from Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Cecil and Howard counties went to the funeral, as well as personnel from Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania, said Kevin Cartwright, a spokesperson for the Baltimore City Fire Department. That’s in addition to the Baltimore City Sheriff’s Office and Maryland State Police.
Cartwright said most of the 1,600 members of the department attended the service. Mutual aid partners from other jurisdictions, he said, helped provide coverage during the memorial.
Outside of work, Pitts enjoyed spending quality time with family, according to the obituary. He liked to fish and was an avid fan of the Ravens and Orioles. He was also an active member at Mount Hebron Baptist Church in Clifton Park.
“Rodney was an old soul, with a kind and generous heart and spirit,” the obituary states. “He would selflessly do anything he could for anybody. He loved helping others and being of service. To have known Rodney was to love him. He had a smile that would light your heart and the room. He had a great sense of humor but was usually late for everything.”
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and Maryland State Fire Marshal are continuing to investigate the fire, which is likely to take months as they process evidence and collect testimony from the dozens of first responders who were present at the scene.
The deaths have rocked the fire department, which is still rebounding from the fallout around a fire on Stricker Street in 2022 that claimed the lives of three firefighters. A few hours after Pitts was rushed to R Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center at the University of Maryland, first responders stood outside at full salute and formed a processional around the gurney carrying the body of their fallen brother to the Maryland Forensic Medical Center.
Following the funeral service, bagpipes sounded as firefighters placed the casket on Engine 29 for one last journey to Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens cemetery in Timonium.
Baltimoreans stood on lawns along the motorcade route to watch the procession on its way to the cemetery. One man near the corner of Charles Street and Northern Parkway waved an American flag and tipped his U.S. Army hat to two firefighters who walked past him.
Reflecting on the tremendous turnout of mourners to the funeral, Nathan Pitts recalled how his cousin always wanted to make an impact.
“He did just that.”