AMBER BOLLMAN
Northwest Florida Daily News Online

BAKER - A 32-year-old volunteer firefighter died Wednesday night after helping to extinguish an electrical fire inside his home.

Neil Woodward, a captain with the Blackman Volunteer Fire Department, died at 11:32 p.m. Wednesday at North Okaloosa Medical Center after collapsing in an ambulance en route from his home on Red Barrow Road.

When the fire started, Woodward was in the living room having a telephone conversation with his wife, Cindy, a paramedic who has been in New York since last week working with the Florida 1 Disaster Medical Assistance Team.

At about 9:30 p.m., Woodward heard the smoke detector in his home and noticed heavy smoke coming from his bathroom, according to Blackman Fire Chief Kenneth Finkel.

Woodward immediately awoke his 5-year-old daughter, who was asleep in her bedroom, and went outside to wait for firefighters to respond, Finkel said.

When firefighters arrived, Woodward assisted them in putting out the blaze, which was confined to the bathroom and caused only minor damage, according to Finkel.

After the fire was extinguished and the home was ventilated, Woodward and other firefighters went back inside to survey the damage, telephone his wife and begin making arrangements to get his daughter to school Thursday morning, Finkel said.

Thirty minutes later, Woodward began to complain of minor chest pain. He collapsed and lost consciousness inside the ambulance, Finkel said. Attempts to revive him at the hospital were unsuccessful.

Woodward had been a volunteer firefighter for the past four years and was remembered as a hard-working public servant with a caring and generous personality.

"He was an outstanding asset to my department," said a tearful Finkel. "It's been a pretty rough blow for everyone to take."

Woodward served as an Okaloosa County sheriff's deputy for more than seven years, before resigning in August 1999.

According to Finkel, Woodward had been working offshore as a safety advisor for Chevron and had recently completed training to become a paramedic.

He also worked part time as a 911 dispatcher in Andalusia, Ala.

Crestview attorney T. Martin Knopes had known Woodward for more than 10 years and remembered him as a "likable guy - always easygoing and laid back."

Shayne Stewart, an Okaloosa Island firefighter, grew up with Woodward in Destin and had known him for more than 20 years.

When Stewart was first getting started as a firefighter, Woodward used to baby-sit his young son.

"He was always there to help in any way he could," Stewart said. "He would do absolutely anything for anybody."

Associate Medical Examiner Dr. Michael Berkland planned to perform an autopsy on Woodward's body Thursday afternoon, though it could take several more days to establish the cause of his death.

Berkland said he believed a heart attack was likely to blame for Woodward's death, though carbon monoxide could have also been a factor.

"There are only a few things that can drop a man in midstep like that," Berkland said.

An account has been established at Eglin Federal Credit Union in Crestview to benefit Woodward's family. Checks should be made out to Cindy Woodward, Finkel said.

In addition to his 5-year-old daughter, Woodward is also survived by an 11-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter.

After receiving news of her husband's death, Cindy Woodward immediately returned to Okaloosa County from New York, where she had been providing medical assistance to rescue workers digging through the remains of the World Trade Center.

"Her heart is completely broken," said Stewart, who has been in regular contact with the Woodward family. "She was dealing with one hell up there and then she gets called back home to deal with another one."