Remembering a miracle: Fire rescue 50 years ago makes Mothers’ Day extra special

DOVER — “My baby! My baby! Somebody do something!”

Those were the spine-chilling words that Delaware State News photographer Gary Emeigh heard Phyllis Bright screaming as he arrived at a house fire in Capitol Park near Dover Air Force Base before volunteers from the Dover Fire Department arrived on the scene in south Dover back on Sept. 28, 1968.

Mrs. Bright’s stovetop had a problem that ignited the kitchen and set the house on fire.

Laying somewhere within the confines of the home as it was being enveloped by hot flames and deep plumbs of black, heavy smoke, was Mrs. Bright’s 3-week-old baby, Marlo, who could be heard crying inside the fiery scene but could not be located.

It was a terrifying moment some 50 years ago that impacted the lives of everyone involved — from the family to the firefighters to the photographer.

It also served as a life-changing experience for Phyllis Marsh, previously Mrs. Bright, that has made Mother’s Day mean so much more in the half century that has passed since that day.

That’s because it all had a happy ending — her baby girl was eventually found and saved by those heroic firefighters.

“A lot of it I don’t remember about the actual day, but I think it’s mostly when I realize how close we came to our lives being entirely different,” said Mrs. Marsh, who still lives in Dover. “(Marlo) wouldn’t have had a life, I don’t know about her sister (Michelle) … everything would have been completely different.

“I would watch (Marlo) when she slept because I was afraid that she was going to stop breathing. I was cleaning soot out of her nose. She would drool soot. She was only 3 weeks old, and I couldn’t believe that something like this had happened to my baby.”

It was a frantic scene that unfolded that day.

Among those firefighters who emerged from the arriving firetruck under the direction of Chief William James was then 22-year-old Joe Hartnett, a meter reader for the city of Dover.

Baby rescued.

“People were shouting there was a baby inside,” Mr. Hartnett said that day, according to the news story published in the Delaware State News. “I ran into the front door without a mask, but I just couldn’t make it. I couldn’t breathe.”

Mr. Hartnett ran back to the truck for an air mask and returned to the house.

“There were two of us,” fireman Ron Dear said. “Joe Hartnett came through the front door — he told me to go around to the back and through the window because he couldn’t find the baby (crib). It might have been in a different room, he thought.

“I was going in through the window over top of an oil tank that was sitting there. So, a guy’s pushing me in there and just about that time (Mr. Hartnett) yelled, ‘I found her!’ So, when he handed her out to me, I took off around the side and they said, ‘Get her out front, we’re all set up.’ She was well. She was very lucky.”

The distressed mother ran toward her baby but was restrained by firefighters and neighbors who tried to calm her.

Firemen then placed a tiny mask over the baby’s face.

Mr. Emeigh wrote in the next day’s Delaware State News, “At first a whimper, a few short breaths, then welcomed crying. The crowd and firemen sighed with relief. “See … she’s going to be all right.”

Baby Marlo is now a 50-year-old resident of Rehoboth Beach. She had a reunion with Mr. Dear at the Dover Fire Department in early May. Her mother also was there.

Mr. Emeigh was there, too, because the unforgettable photographs and story he wrote about the dramatic life-saving scene have resurfaced as they are among the thousands of photos that are featured inside his newly released photojournalism book, “The Ink in My Blood.”

Those images have a prominent location near the front of Mr. Emeigh’s 432-page book because of the impact that day left on him.

“I’m speechless,” Ms. Bright said. “I don’t know. I can’t believe it. I’m just so thankful to them and it was kind of surreal in the times I’ve met them before because I was a lot younger. Now I probably appreciate it more and it means more. It’s just insane to see the photos in the book and to realize how much it affected them.”

Mr. Emeigh said the ordeal left a lasting impression on him because he was a new father around the age of 20 at the time.

“When I shot those pictures, I knew I’d never shoot anything more dramatic with such a positive outcome,” Mr. Emeigh said. “I knew it back then. Even today, I can’t drive by Capitol Park without thinking about it.

“The one with (infant Marlo) getting oxygen was always the most dramatic picture I’ve taken and the best outcome. There have been some gruesome pictures, and a lot of them never got published for good reason, but being a new father, when I got home, I couldn’t talk. It impacted me back then and it still does.”

About that day when she was found outside her home crying out, “My baby! My baby! Somebody do something!” Mrs. Marsh said, “I just remember I couldn’t find her room. I was completely disoriented from the smoke. There was plastic burning in the kitchen and that smoke was something awful.”

Mr. Dear vividly remembers the details of that day.

“It will never totally be out of my mind because I remember the follow-up that we did with the people (at the Dover Fire Department),” he said. “Of course, that day was different because everything seemed to click, everything worked well, there was no traffic, we had great drivers, people on the trucks were great — it just all worked out.

“One of the things that was good was that they had these bumper things around the bed, and that kept the smoke higher than what was in the house.”

Hospital officials said if fireman had been any later in getting Marlo out of the smoke-filled dwelling that she wouldn’t have survived.

Ms. Bright said she has always seemed to have trouble expressing her appreciation enough to the firemen for what they did that day.

“I could never ever thank them enough,” she said. “I don’t even know why (I survived) but it does make you think, ‘Hey, maybe I was supposed to be here for some reason.’”

Mr. Dear was appreciative, but like many humility-laden emergency responders, he seemingly shrugged it off as part of his job.

“That’s what we’re here for. That’s just what we did,” Mr. Dear said. “I had been in the fire company about nine years, so I had gone through all the schools, I had all the backup, all the training and stuff. You just did what you’re supposed to.”

What they did was save a life — one that remains forever grateful 50 years later.

The very same life that, along with her sister Michelle, truly makes this a happy Mother’s Day for Mrs. Marsh.

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