By KATHY MELLOTT CNHI News Service 11-7-05 The huge question hangs heavy in the air when firefighters in the region have come together these days. What went wrong at the state fire school in Lewistown that led to the tragic death of Cambria County native Capt. Robert Newt Gallardy? Ironically, this year marks the 50th anniversary of the states only fire school, a 13-employee operation under the umbrella of the Pennsylvania Fire Commission. Gallardys death on Oct. 25 was the first time anyone died or was seriously injured while in training or instructing at the academy in Mifflin County, a state official said. While speculation is unavoidable, finding out what happened to his longtime friend and assuring that it never happens again is turning into a passion for Edward Mann, state fire commissioner and the man who is shouldering the responsibility for Gallardys death. Bob Gallardys death will not be in vain, that is a promise, an emotional Mann said in an interview with The Tribune-Democrat late last week. Every line-of-duty death hurts, but this one hurts even more because I worked with Bob. Im taking this a little more personal. Gallardy, 47, was a Summerhill native who nine years ago went to work for the Altoona Fire Department. Others at his funeral said Gallardy, who called his hometown his beloved Summerhill, was working at the state fire training school evaluating and training other firefighters striving to become certified instructors. On Oct. 23, the last day of a five-day training session spread over two weekends, Gallardy went to the basement of one of the buildings at the center of the training site to throw more skids on a fire that had been set as part of teaching the best and most effective ways to extinguish a blaze. Something went wrong and he never walked back out. Students found him collapsed on the basement floor with burns to 75 percent of his body. He died two days later at the Lehigh Valley Medical Center in Allentown, never able to tell what occurred. An autopsy failed to show any pre-existing physical problems and Gallardys death was ruled to be caused by the fire. Altoona fire Chief Reynold Santone, who considered himself not only Gallardys boss but his friend, cant help dwelling on the incident. I think we have an idea what went wrong, but no one wants to speculate, said Santone, choosing not to voice his opinion. But once we find out for sure, then Ill feel a little more comfortable. The incident has had a chilling effect on fire training across the state and has many looking for ways to make things better. An investigator with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, a branch of the Center for Disease Control, arrived at the fire school the day Gallardy died. He spent three days at the site and took with him all of Gallardys gear, including a helmet and breathing apparatus. The investigation is expected to take a minimum of one year and as long as two. But, Mann said, regardless of the outcome and where the blame falls, the findings will be made public. The … report and the agencys findings will be shared with the world, he said. An investigation independent of any state or federal agencies also is being conducted by the Mifflin County Regional Police Department. Weve already started to look at procedures ourselves, Mann said of plans to bring in all of the instructors at the school that weekend and review everything that happened. If we decide we need to make changes, well make them, Mann said. Were not waiting until the (national institutes) investigation is completed. This made everyone step back, Santone said. They knew before it was dangerous, but this really shows how dangerous. A 40-year member of the Altoona Fire Department, Santone predicts giant changes in fire training in Pennsylvania. For one thing, he was down there by himself; youll never see that again, he said. Its always two in and two out of every fire. And here we are down there at fire training school with just one man in there. One man in alone was something that happened on occasion, the fire commissioner said. It was not a matter of standard practice that instructors were in the burn building by themselves, Mann said. But were there times when it happened? Yes, but never without the knowledge of others. But I can tell you right now thats going to be one of the first changes. One of the most significant changes youll see is that when someone is setting a fire, there will be someone watching that person. Longtime firefighters such as Johnstown Chief Tony Kovacic and Ron Springer of the Dauntless Fire Company of Ebensburg think its important to find out and make changes, but they have not lost confidence in the school. Im very interested to find out what happened (and) I think that report will tell a lot, Kovacic said. We certainly dont want to go through this again. If there is a problem out there we want to identify it.