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Atlantic City FF Honored 42 Years Later for Life-Saving Rescue

Atlantic City FF Honored 42 Years Later for Life-Saving Rescue

Birdie Hinton- Cody ,wife of Leo Hinton looks on along with Atlantic City Fire department Chief Dennis Brooks as Ricardo Belgrave grandson of Leo Hinton speaks during a special ceremony held at Police & Firefighters Memorial Plaza in Atlantic City in hono

Atlantic City Press via YellowBrix

June 26, 2010

ATLANTIC CITY — No one ever denied that Leo Hinton was a hero. But on June 25, nearly four decades after his death, he finally received the recognition so many insisted he deserved.

Forty-two years ago, the off-duty firefighter walked into a blaze at a hotel in Atlantic City. Dressed in civilian clothes and armed only with a fire extinguisher, he rescued a woman whose hair had already caught fire. Hinton, 31, died four years later after a battle with pulmonary problems he had developed soon after the fire.

But Hinton’s name was not among the 78 engraved on the Atlantic County Public Safety Memorial, which honors those who died in the line of duty, until Friday.

A group of family, friends and a collection of Atlantic City’s emergency personnel gathered in front of City Hall to unveil Hinton’s name as the 79th hero honored at the memorial. The Hinton family’s long wait was over.

“Everything is on his time,” Mayor Lorenzo Langford told the crowd Friday, pointing to the sky. “While man can plan, God is the greatest planner.”

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Photo of Leo A. Hinton, from 1960 Atlantic City High School yearbook, for the ceremony story

It was Hinton who initially reported the fire Jan. 30, 1968, at the Seabreeze Hotel, a Kentucky Avenue building that had just been the site of a minor fire 11 hours earlier. The Press reported that two occupants suffered second- and third-degree burns and another man was admitted to the hospital after suffering first-degree burns during the midday fire. The unidentified woman Hinton rescued from the hotel’s third floor could also have been injured, or worse, if it weren’t for Hinton. Instead, she did not even require hospital treatment.

Hinton entered the burning building with no protective gear and managed to locate a fire extinguisher to fight his way through. About a year later, he began experiencing pulmonary problems. Birdie Hinton-Cody, the fallen firefighter’s widow, said she never doubted the illness was a result of his rescue efforts.

“Every doctor from here to (Thomas Jefferson University Hospital) said that,” she said.

But the group that manages the memorial in Atlantic City was uncertain about the connection.

The 200 Club, a nonprofit foundation that supports families left behind by police, fire and rescue personnel killed in the line of duty, declined previous requests to engrave Hinton’s name on the monument because the existing records could not prove his death was work-related.

“It has been a struggle, without a doubt,” said Barbara Camper, the city’s affirmative action officer, who headed the efforts to get Hinton honored.

After being alerted to the situation by Camper, Langford assigned Fire Chief Dennis Brooks to investigate Hinton’s death late last year.

Brooks learned that Hinton reported several personal injuries to the Fire Department as a result of the fire, including smoke and chemical inhalation and injuries to his eyes. About a year later, he developed pulmonary problems that began to affect his work attendance. But that’s where the investigation hit a wall.

“Nobody ever really documented anything,” Brooks said, referring to Hinton’s record of absences. “They didn’t really state on the slips what he was off for.”

Joseph Corbo, newly appointed president of the 200 Club, declined comment Friday, as did other members of the group’s Board of Trustees.

He also declined to comment on whether the club holds the right to determine whose name is engraved at the memorial. He said he would try to speak to other members Friday and call back. The 200 Club’s website, which lists those honored at the site, currently does not include Hinton’s name.

Brooks reported his findings to the mayor, and months later the ceremony was scheduled.

“When (Camper) approached me with this, I’m like, ‘What’s the problem?’” Langford said after the ceremony. “To me, it didn’t matter what the problems were in the past. We just wanted to get it right.”

Right or wrong, if Hinton were alive today, he likely would not have minded either way. Friends remember him as a humble man, particularly about his heroic rescue that night at the Seabreeze Hotel.

“He never really talked about it,” said Michael Johnson, Hinton’s longtime friend. “I asked him about it once. I just said, ‘That was a great thing you did.’ And he just said, ‘I’m a firefighter. That’s what I’m supposed to do.’”

Hinton’s fearless attitude was a trait he maintained throughout his short life.

After graduating from Atlantic City High School in 1960, Hinton, known as “Skipper” to his friends, joined the U.S. Army as a paratrooper.

“He was a risk taker,” Hinton-Cody said. “That’s why he went into the airborne. I remember when he joined, he said, ‘We’re going to jump out of that plane together.’ I said, ‘I don’t think so.’ I was crazy, but not that crazy.”

He joined the Fire Department in 1967, soon after he left the Army. He later received the Gold Valor Award from the New Jersey Firemen’s Mutual Benevolent Association for his rescue in 1968. But his time in the field was shortened because of the illness he developed.

“He began having trouble performing his duties as a fireman,” Brooks said.

In 1970, officials began suggesting he take a desk job, but he refused. In the meantime, he held a part-time job as an aide to former Superior Court Judge Steven Perskie, then a newly-elected assemblyman. Perskie described him as “low-key” and “quiet,” but hard-working and driven.

“The sad fact is we never got a chance to develop the relationship that I had envisioned,” Perskie said.

In 1972, then-Public Safety Director Mario Floriani ordered him to take the desk job in the Fire Prevention Unit. He died about five months later on Oct. 12, 1972.

More than 37 years later, his friends and family finally feel that he is where he belongs.

“It was a struggle, but we got here,” Hinton-Cody said after Friday’s ceremony. “Leo has finally taken his place.”


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