A Short Dash From Lunch to Heroism

A Short Dash From Lunch to Heroism

Just one month after Sept. 11, 2001, another victim of terror could well owe his life to an Alexandria firefighter.

This terror attack did not come from the sky. Nor was it based on religious fanaticism. It was home grown urban violence and it was thwarted by home grown heroism.

At 12:15 p.m., Oct. 11, 2001, William Coates was sitting in his city vehicle eating his lunch at the Bradlee Shopping Center. That's when he heard a group of students from T.C. Williams High School begin to scream.

Coates noticed three men attacking another man near the students. He immediately left his vehicle, began running toward the melee shouting at the perpetrators to stop. As he got within about 10 feet of the attack one of high school girls shouted that the men had a gun.

When he left his vehicle he had grabbed his two-way radio. Hearing of the gun, Coates radioed Fire Communications requesting police assistance, while continuing his rush toward the assailants shouting for them to stop and the school girls to get out of the area.

ALTHOUGH COATES was in uniform, it was that of a mechanical inspector for the city's Code Enforcement Bureau. And they don't carry weapons.

As he closed in on the assault the three men heard the police sirens and scattered in different directions. Coates called in their descriptions, identified the gun toter, and kept watch on another who was apprehended running along King Street.

For his actions and selflessly interjecting himself into a highly volatile and dangerous situation, with no thought for his own safety, Coates, was awarded the Bronze Medal at the 2002 Public Safety Valor Awards ceremony on April 12.

"It never really bothered me, then or since, that the guy had a gun," Coates said. "What did was that we were only 30 days away from 9-11, and now this."

The other thing that got to him was the cause of the attack. "It was all over a pair of boots that one of the attackers was wearing. The guy who was being beaten had complimented him about his boots and they took it as sarcasm," Coates said.

"But I think these were just three bad guys out hunting for trouble. The victim was just a construction worker on his lunch break and not bothering anybody," he explained. "After the remark about the boots, they went to their car, got the gun, came back and began to pistol whip this guy."

A NATIVE OF THE District of Columbia, Coates began his career as an Emergency Medical Technician with the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department in 1974. From there he went to the Fire Marshall's office in 1981, doing fire investigations.

Prior to joining the Fairfax County department, Coates was a volunteer firefighter in Oxon Hill, MD, from 1972 to 1974. He served as a medic there also. "I have just always had a natural interest in helping people who are injured," he emphasized.

In 1989 he started his own private investigative firm, based in Prince William County, specializing in fire investigations. "Mostly, we worked for insurance companies and law firms. But when the economy started going south so did the business," Coates said.

That's when he answered an ad in the newspaper for an inspector with Alexandria's Code Enforcement Bureau. "After going through the process, they asked me if I wanted the job and I immediately said 'yes,'" Coates revealed. He began on Sept. 2, 1992.

COATES' DECISION was more than welcomed by Arthur Dahlberg, Director of Code Enforcement. "Bill is a wonderful man and we are very lucky to have him in the department. He brings a unique breadth of experience, combining his firefighter and investigative backgrounds," said Dahlberg.

Alexandria Fire Chief Thomas M. Hawkins, agreed. "Bill Coates came to us with a good background and has done an excellent job. His depth of knowledge will serve us and him well as a supervisor."

When Coates began with the Alexandria bureau, he served as an Existing Structures Inspector. Now he is the New Construction Supervisor.

"In the first job I dealt mainly with home owners. Now it's builders. It's a little less stressful than telling a home owner they have to make changes to come up to code," he said.

It might have been more stressful, but his dealings with the public were praised by the person who first interviewed him 10 years ago. "Bill has always been very professional in dealing with both the public and his co-workers," said Mary Bryant, Code Enforcement Bureau Supervisor.

A RESIDENT OF Fort Washington, MD, just across the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, the 49-year-old bachelor has two sisters and four brothers residing in the Washington metropolitan area. In addition to his regular job, he also serves as Assistant Pastor at the United House of Prayer in the District.

"Not only does he serve as my assistant pastor but he does all kinds of work around the church. No matter what needs fixing, electrical, plumbing, you name it, Bill can do it," said the Reverend A.D. Cunningham, pastor of the United House of Prayer.

Always broadening his knowledge, Coates has received advanced training at the FBI Academy at Quantico, the ATF School in Glenco, GA, and the Fairfax County Public Safety Academy. He has completed courses in fire and arson, criminal profiling, investigative techniques, and post explosive investigation administered by various state and federal agencies.

"Bill is an extremely talented and dedicated individual. Every now and then you run across an individual with just the right stuff to make them exceptional. Bill is one of those people. I enjoyed working with him when he was part of the Arlington Fire Department," said Chief Edward Plaugher of the Arlington Fire Department.

"Ultimately I would like to be a chief fire marshall," Coates confided. "I work with them occasionally now."

THE CRIMINAL PROFILING and investigative techniques proved particularly useful when Coates was subpoenaed to testify in court on the assault case he intervened in. As a result of his testimony, and ability to positively identify the attackers, the gunman received a five-year sentence and the other two each got six-month sentences.

His medic training also benefited the victim who had suffered a lacerated head. As police apprehended two of the assailants, Coates was able to offer temporary aid until the EMS Unit arrived. The third attacker was arrested that same night.

"The guy with the gun had run toward Minnie Howard Middle School and tossed it in a trash bin as he fled. But he had dropped a bullet clip on the ground when he was beating the victim. It enabled police to tie the gun to him. He was already a convicted felon. That's why he got five years," Coates clarified.

In his everyday work, Coates enforces codes intended to insure the safety and well being of building occupants. On Oct. 11 of last year, his medic training surged forth to enforce a code of the medical profession as stated in the Hippocratic oath -- "do no harm."