This month marks the 50th anniversary of the infamous Gray Building fire which occurred on Monday afternoon, November 6, 1939. This fire in the downtown commercial district gave the LAFD its first opportunity to mobilize and demonstrate to the citizens of LA and to the fire service nationally, its new heavy duty and innovative manifold wagons, duplex pumpers, water tower/truck combination and all metal one hundred foot hydraulic aerial ladder. This heavy duty apparatus was equipped with windshields and completely enclosed crew cabs, a bucket tiller seat with windshield and tilt wheel, and the latest Mars figure-eight warning lights. All of these rigs were equipped with the powerful American LaFrance or Seagrave V-12 engines, the duplex pumpers each having two V-12 motors and all boasted of all wheel braking systems, including the trailer wheels on the water tower truck and the tractor drawn aerial.
The manifold wagons were equipped with the largest monitors ever mounted on land apparatus. Monitor tip sizes ranged from 1 3/4 inches to 3 1/2 inches, the 3 1/2 tip being capable of 3500 gpm at 80 pounds nozzle pressure. Each manifold wagon carried 1000 feet of 3 1/2 hose in a split conventional hose bed and 1000 feet of 2 1/2 in a transverse bed, an innovation that did not reappear on LAFD equipment until the purchase of the 1948 Mack high pressure wagons.
Tragically, this fire also caused the in line of duty deaths of two fire fighters: Firefighter Joseph W. Kacl of Truck 3, and Auto Fireman John C. Hough of Engine 3.
The Gray Building fire was first reported to the Westlake Signal Office by telephone, but unfortunately, the address given was 3336 South Broadway, several miles south of the fire. A few minutes later, at 2:03 p.m., Street Box 1133, at Third and Broadway was pulled by someone seeing smoke coming from the Gray Building at 336 South Broadway. Engines 3, 4, 5, 16, Trucks 3 and 4, Salvage 3, and Rescue 23, along with Acting Battalion Chief MacDougall in the buggy for Battalion 1, were dispatched.
Heavy smoke was coming from the second and third floor windows as Engine 3, commanded by Capt. Jones, turned south on Broadway from Third Street. There was no doubt in anyone’s minds that they had a working fire.
Capt. Jones spotted the duplex pumper on a double four hydrant almost across the street from the Gray Building. Two 3 1/2 lines were laid by the manifold wagon as the rig was spotted on the streetcar tracks in the center of Broadway. Truck 3 took a position in the center of the street, just ahead of Engine 3’s wagon and raised their new 100 foot metal aerial to the roof of the fire building. Truck 3 also threw their two 35 foot extensions to the original fire floor for access and hand line advancement.
Engine 5, the second manifold wagon and duplex pumper, under the command of Capt. Zink, took a double four hydrant at Fourth and Broadway, and laid two 3 1/2 lines to a position in line with Engine 3’s wagon. As the fire progressed, both Engine 3 and Engine 5’s monitors were used to great advantage to knock down the fire on the second, third, fourth and fifth floors, as recorded in many photos, including the cover of shot of the November 15, 1939 edition of The Grapevine.
Engine 16 also arrived on the Broadway side along with Salvage 3. Salvage 3 started salvage work on the ground floor and Engine 16 assisted with hose lines from Engine 3’s wagon. The manifold wagons and duplex pumpers were doing what they were designed for: supplying large volumes of water and lots of hose for other companies to use.
Engine 4 (Capt. Kaplan) and Truck 4 (Capt. Fishburn) spotted heavy smoke coming from the rear of the fire building. Engine 4 laid into the rear of the fire with their dual carrier, reducing their 3 1/2 inch line to two working 2 1/2 inch hand lines. The truck raised their 85 foot wood aerial to the roof of the four-story Trustee Building, immediately south of the Gray Building. The members of Truck 4 were credited with saving many lives of the employees of the fire building and exposures who were trapped on the fire escapes and upper floors of the three buildings.
Despite the aggressive attack by the first alarm units, the fire spread from the second floor, the floor of origin, through the fifth, or top floor.
At 2:18 p.m., three additional engine companies were requested for a second alarm. Engine 24, 28 and 58 were the three additional companies responding to Acting Assistant Chief Rothermel’s (Division One) request.
Fire Chief Ralph J. Scott took command of the fire and special called Engine 23 to the Spring Street side of the fire at 2:50 p.m. because of the heavy fire condition on all floors at the rear of the building. This was the third of the manifold/duplex companies carrying large diameter hose and a large volume monitor which was definitely needed by this time. Engine 23’s monitor, however, was not doing the job of knocking the fire down on the fourth and fifth floors. Chief Scott special called Water Tower Truck 24 to the Spring Street side of the Gray Building fire at 3:03 p.m. The 2 1/4 tip on Truck 24’s tower made good penetration and knock down of the fire involving the fourth and fifth floors. Portable monitors (Morse Deluge Sets) and 2 1/2 inch hand lines operating from the roofs of the four-story Trustee Building on the south and the Rude Building on the north were definitely reaching the fire burning deep inside the center of the fifth floor.
During this massive attack on the Gray Building fire, two structural failures occurred. First, the second floor where the fire supposedly started, collapsed without warning, carrying Firefighter Joseph W. Kacl, who was on the nozzle, to his ultimate death in the rubble of the first and second floors. As the collapse of the second floor became evident, his fellow firefighters on the hose line and others attempted to rescue Firefighter Kacl from this pile of burning rubble. As rescue attempts were being carried out, noises from the upper floors gave warning and a second, this time major collapse occurred, bringing the fifth, fourth, and third floors. Firefighter Kacl’s body was recovered from the ruins shortly after midnight, the morning of Tuesday, November 7.
Auto Fireman John C. Hough of Engine 3, who was Chief Rothermel’s driver for the day, was struck in the head by falling debris during rescue operations. He later succumbed to injuries, passing away on December 12, 1939.
As a youngster of eight years, I had the opportunity to witness the Gray Building fire, and the tremendous effort put forth by men and equipment to control a major fire in the downtown area. I remember quite clearly the sound of the duplex pumpers, their two V-12 LaFrance motors working with a thunderous noise. To top it off, the latest and most modern water tower ever built was in action at the same fire for the first time.
By George “Smokey” Bass
Box 15 Club of Los Angeles
(Rest in Peace Smokey Bass – His story was written in 1989)
Bel Air Fire
On November 6, 1961, 38 years after the Gray Building fire, the LAFD had a major conflagration know as the Bel Air fire.
On November 6, 1961, I was a two year Fireman working at FS 92 on Pico Blvd. in West Los Angeles. We had a beautiful 1958 Seagrave engine, shop #60013 at the time. It was already warm that morning with a Santa Ana wind blowing from the north east. One of those days when you knew you were going to have some action. We were about to have our 8 a.m. lineup at the front of the apparatus floor when we looked up and saw the huge loom-up coming from the Santa Monica Mountains right in front of us. We didn’t wait for the dispatch as Captain Jack Skinner told us to suit up and respond. Engineer Gene “Hoppy” Hopkins started the rig as Vince Cortazzo, Bill Stephens, and I jumped on the tailboard for one of the most memorable shifts we ever had on the department. Fireman Jack Holman would respond and join up with us later. This was the day of the Bel Air fire. As we approached the fire we encountered the fire blowing horizontally across the road in front of us. The rig stopped as we watched from the tailboard Capt. Skinner and Engineer Hopkins (both experienced veterans of the LAFD) discussing a plan. The plan was to drive through the fire which we did. When we got out the other side our hose had dozens of small smoldering burn holes from the embers and my dungaree pants leg was on fire. The fire was moving very fast when we met the chief on the ridge and it seemed like night as the sun was covered by heavy black smoke. We were told to try to get ahead of the fire and protect the structures the majority of which had wood shingle roofs and were burning blocks at a time. Many of the streets had no water so we used our tank and a few times our axe and hayward to pull burning shingles from the roofs that had just ignited. We traveled from block to block and house to house using the “hit and run” technique saving many homes from total destruction.
Engine 92 was at the corner of Roscomare and Anzio Road. A beautiful home with a wood shake roof that had just “taken off.” The roof was ablaze. I advanced a one and a half inch line into the home, and was in the attic, attempting to save the interior of the home. Engineer Hopkins, who was out with the rig, noticed the roof was starting to weaken and rushed inside, telling me to get out. As we made our way through the hallway to the outside, part of the roof collapsed into the structure. A big chandelier fell right between us. It was a close call, but only one of many that we and other firemen would face throughout the day and night. I have always owed Hoppy a great debt of gratitude for getting me out of the house.
A few years ago, after an article in the LA Times was written about the fire by Cecilia Rasmussen, I received a call from Rob Barry, who lived in the house Engine 92 was trying to save on Roscomere. He invited me to meet his family and to see the house 45 years later. It was amazing! For one thing – we saved more of the house than I thought. Rob’s father had the house rebuilt with minor modifications and it looked much the same as it must have before the fire hit it. Rob’s brother and mother were there. They all had unbelievable stories to tell of what they went through. Next November, I would like to see Old Engine 92 and maybe new Engine 92 parked in front on the house for the 53rd anniversary of the fire.
On a sad note, Engineer Hoppy Hopkins who retired as a Captain II, passed away in his 90’s still playing golf. He had led a long and rewarding life.
The Bel Air-Brentwood conflagration would become the worst conflagration in the City’s history and ranked 5th in American history with more than 484 homes and 21 other structures destroyed within 6 hours. The fire perimeter was 19 miles involving over 15,000 acres and a loss of $25 million (1961 dollars).
The LAFD Historical Society has the original Engine 92, the 1958 Seagrave that Hoppy Hopkins drove to the fire. I took Hoppy to see his old rig and he told me that when he was moving the rig at the fire by himself, a hot power line fell on the front of the rig. He knew not to get out so he drove through the wire as it arced and sparked. He showed me the crease on the front of the rig that is still there today as a mark of the battle. Retired engineers Mark Howell and Tim Griffin have been working on this rig and soon you will see it in running condition and on display at the Harbor Fire Museum in San Pedro.
By Frank Borden, LAFD retired