Sander Cohen will be remembered most for his keen sense of humor as well as for the dedication to his work — which colleagues say he showed right until the final moments of his life.
Cohen, a deputy chief with the Maryland State Fire Marshal’s Office and a lieutenant with the Rockville Volunteer Fire Department, died after being struck Dec. 8 by two vehicles on I-270 in Rockville while helping a motorist who had crashed into the median. He was 33.
“We’re all still in a state of shock,” said Eric Bernard, president of the Rockville Volunteer Fire Department. “There’s no way to mentally prepare for this. We deal with emergencies every day. We’re processing. We’re planning. But none of us have grasped reality.”
Cohen, who grew up in the Washington area and graduated from Winston Churchill High School in Potomac, joined the fire department in 2003 at the age of 19. Bernard said Cohen’s easygoing personality had an immediate impact on the crew.
“He was a funny dude,” he said. “He could make you laugh,” and maintained an optimistic outlook.
Bernard recalled a time when Cohen was asked by the department’s board of directors how they should reprimand a fellow crew member and ended his answer with a joke that had everyone laughing. He said it was representative of Cohen’s ability to defuse a tense situation.
He received high praise for his work in saving lives. For helping three apartment residents escape the second floor of a burning building during his first year on the job, he was awarded the Public Safety Officer Medal of Valor — the highest level of distinction given to a public safety officer.
One of Cohen’s best friends from high school, Rockville resident Jennifer Reines Fones, said she has been in “shock and denial” since receiving a 5 a.m. call last Saturday of the tragic news from her cousin, who was Cohen’s former roommate.
“I feel like I lost a brother,” she said. “Sander’s just Sander. Anybody that knows him … he’s just this consistent person in your life where if you’re having a bad day or you need someone to send you a funny text message, he’s just that person. He’s the only guy friend I have that my husband is comfortable with me saying ‘I love you.’ He’s the type of person that will tell you to take it on the chin and also say something kind.”
Fones said Cohen was her date to her junior prom when he was a senior, though the two were not dating. She said Cohen was a calming presence throughout the evening in what was otherwise a difficult social situation for her.
“I had such bad anxiety at the time, but he went above and beyond to make sure I felt comfortable with everything and that I wasn’t having any anxiety,” she said.
Fones said she feels frustration over Cohen’s life being cut short.
“It just was a horrible freak accident, and he was somebody who gave so much to this world… it’s infuriating,” she said. “He’s 33 years old. Nobody deserves to be taken before they’ve accomplished everything they have to accomplish. He had so much to give.”
A few years ago, Fones introduced Cohen to Rabbi Shlomo Buxbaum of Aish HaTorah of Greater Washington in Rockville. Cohen then became a weekly attendee at Buxbaum’s Wednesday, Wine and Wisdom learning sessions.
“He would come and was a really funny guy,” Buxbaum said. “He would make jokes and keep everybody in check.”
Buxbaum said sometimes when class discussions took a deep, complicated turn, an awkward silence resulted. Cohen managed to change the mood.
“Sander would roll his eyes and come in with a line and open up the floor for people to speak about something,” he said. “Or if something didn’t resonate with him, he’d be the first one to speak up. He was a brave one who would really challenge you, and when he spoke up other people would.”
Even after Cohen stopped attending, he and Buxbaum kept in touch and met for a beer, or to share a birthday. Buxbaum said it had been a couple months since he and Cohen had spoken.
Cohen was off duty Friday night when he was driving south along I-270 in Rockville and noticed a car in the left lane had crashed into the median.
According to media reports, Cohen pulled over to the car, activated his emergency hazard lights and moved to the shoulder with the driver, FBI special agent and Carlos Wolff of Gaithersburg.
According to media reports, Cohen and Wolff were struck by a southbound vehicle driven by Roberto A. Garza Palacios of Germantown attempting to avoid their stopped cars. Cohen and Wolff were thrown over the median into the northbound lanes.
Cohen was then struck by a northbound vehicle driven by Brittany Waters of Clarksburg, according to the reports.
Cohen died at the scene. Wolff was later pronounced dead at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda. No charges have been filed, and the incident remains under investigation.
Word of Cohen’s death was particularly shocking to the firefighters and rescue workers who responded to the crash scene. Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service Chief Scott Goldstein told Bethesda Magazine that none of the officers who were on duty was aware Cohen was involved until they arrived.
“We come to work to help others and providing patient care on one of our own is the worst of the circumstances we could ever face,” he said.
Goldstein said the tragedy of losing one of the department’s own officers has been felt deeply among those who were on the scene.
Although off duty at the time of the crash, Cohen is considered to have died in the line of duty because he was acting as a public safety officer, according to the Rockville Volunteer Fire Department. Bernard said Cohen’s actions demonstrated the level of selflessness that he gave to the community for 14 years.
“This was a guy that did not need to do what he did,” Bernard said. “He assumed all of this risk, knowing the danger. He stopped to help. He did it with all his heart and because he wanted to, not because he had to.”
Cohen is survived by his parents, Neil and Arlene Soodak Cohen; grandmother, Rose Soodak; aunts and uncles Teresa and Joel Soodak, Howard and Carol Cohen, and Sondra and David Cohen; cousins Jessica and Ethan Soodak and Rebecca and Samuel Cohen. A funeral service was scheduled to be held Thursday morning at B’nai Israel Congregation in Rockville, followed by a burial at Judean Memorial Gardens in Olney.