With the steady rhythm of a nice long run, Robert Duval of Wauregan finds peace.
“I just go out and it just allows me to, like, unravel a lot of things,” he said.
And in his four decades in the fire service, the chief of Atwood Hose Fire Company and president of the Connecticut Fire Chiefs Association has seen a lot of things.
As an investigator for the National Fire Protection Association, Duval has personally responded to some the worst tragedies in the nation.
“We see stuff that we wouldn't wish on anybody,” he said. “Sometimes it's a one-off incident. And sometimes it's compounded over time, and you need to take care of your mental health, too.”
In 2003, Duval was called to the Station Nightclub fire in West Warwick, Rhode Island, a horrific fire that claimed 100 lives and injured hundreds more. The Feb. 20 blaze began when pyrotechnics for the rock band Great White ignited flammable foam that lined the club's walls as soundproofing. It was engulfed within seconds as hundreds of concertgoers scrambled to escape.
Duval would spend the next two weeks at the site, combing the wreckage, and learning grim lessons to try and prevent it from happening again.
“We looked at why didn't everybody get out? Why did the fire spread so fast? What caused all of the chain of events that ended up resulting in 100 people dying?” he said.
Based on those findings, the NFPA would enact tough new provisions for fire sprinklers and crowd management in nightclub-type venues, marking sweeping changes to safety codes and standards across the country.
Years later, a chance meeting with a survivor of that fire set him off on a new course - as a charity runner.
“I had the opportunity to meet Gina Russo,” he recalls. “She’s a tremendous woman. She's very resilient.”
Gina Russo survived the fire but was badly burned, enduring more than 50 surgeries in the years to follow.
Her fiancé, Fred Crisostomi, died that night, unable to escape the packed club. To honor him and the 99 others lost to the blaze, Russo founded the Station Fire Memorial Foundation, raising more than $2 million to open a memorial park at the site of the former club.
The two would meet at a conference in Rhode Island. Duval was there representing the NPFA. Russo was representing the Phoenix Society, a national nonprofit helping burn survivors, where she volunteers as a peer counselor.
“The Phoenix Society and [the NFPA] have always had a relationship,” Duval explained. “On the public education side, the Phoenix Society supports burn survivors and their families. And the NFPA has an arm that does public education to prevent fires. And we write codes and standards to help to prevent fires, so there was a natural relationship there.”
Inspired by Russo’s resilience, Duval began fundraising for the Phoenix Society as a charity runner in 2014, the same year he took up marathon running, a choice he describes as a “no brainer” – helping those on their own marathon journeys to healing, one step at a time.
The 2021 Boston Marathon will be his fifteenth full marathon, and at 57 years old, Duval has no plans of slowing down.
With a 2019 finish of 3:28:58, and 3:33:57 in 2020’s virtual Boston Marathon, he could have easily qualified to enter based on time alone. But participating as a charity runner, he said, gives him meaningful motivation to push him up Heartbreak Hill and down that final stretch of Boylston Street.
“In the latter part of the marathon, when your body is starting to say, ‘What are you doing?’ You see, you know, all these people are counting on me,” he said. “The Phoenix Society, all the burn survivors and their families, it just gives you a little bit more pep in your step, so to speak. And it helps.”
The 125th running of the Boston Marathon is set for Monday, Oct. 11. Chief Duval is about halfway to his fundraising goal. You can support him on his mission here.