LAFD History – The Bel Air Fire November, 1961 and the Gray Building Fire, November 1939

October 31, 2019

This month I am bringing back some history of two major fires in Los Angeles. The month of November is one of those times during the year that brings back many memories for me. I was appointed to the LAFD on November 7, 1959. On November 6, 1961, I went to the Bel Air Fire on Engine 92. November was also a month that had a tragic fire losing two LAFD firefighters at the Gray Building in downtown LA. They, along with 267 other LAFD members who made the ultimate sacrifice, were remembered in last month’s LAFD Fallen Firefighters Memorial ceremony.

LAFD History – Remembering the Bel Air Fire

On November 6, 1961, I was a two year fireman working at FS 92. We had a beautiful 1958 Seagrave engine, shop #60013 at the time. 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 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 Stevens, and I jumped on the tailboard for one of the most memorable shifts we ever had.

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 Capt. Skinner and Engineer Hopkins (both experienced veterans of the LAFD) discussed 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. I remember Vince Cortazzo and I were on a roof when we were hit by a large borate drop from a tanker airplane. I left some of the borate in my old helmet as a reminder of that day.

We traveled from block to block and house to house using the “hit and run” technique. Engine 92 was at the corner of Roscomare and Anzio Rd where a home with a wood shake roof that had just “taken off.” 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. A big chandelier fell right between us. It was a close call, but only one of many that we had that day. I have always owed Hoppy a great debt of gratitude. On a sad note, Hoppy Hopkins, who retired as a Captain II, passed away at the age of 91 in 2012. He had led a long and rewarding life. RIP Hoppy.

A day to remember! I’m sure many of you have similar memories that are not forgotten.

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 a story about 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 and he needed to relocate fast 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. The rig is now in our “shop” nearly restored with a little engine work and some polish. It still has the original paint. We thank retired Engineers Mark Howell and Tim Griffin who did the work on it and soon you will see it in running condition with a plan to have it on display.

Many thousands of homes were saved in the fire and the residents of Mandeville Canyon wanted to show their appreciation for the benefit of the LAFD members. A committee was formed between the Relief Assoc. and the Fire Fighters Assoc. consisting of Joe Pecelunas, John Adams, John Finch and Ronald Robey to design an apparatus to provide for feeding at the scene of emergencies. The committee came up with a “customized” catering truck – A 1962 ¾ ton Chevrolet with a modified catering body to fit the needs of our members in the field. One year after the fire, the new LAFD Service Utility, Shop 60114, was given to the Fire Department in a ceremony that included actor Robert Taylor and his wife Ursula Thiess, and John Doriss President of the Canyon Property owners Assoc.

Our Historical Society is fortunate to have this vehicle today. It is on display at the LAFD West Bureau Headquarters in Old Fire Station 82. You may see it at special LAFDHS and LAFD events dispensing coffee, beverages and snacks as it did through the years at incidents. Remember Dinty Moore Stew and B&M dark bread in a can? We have some on display in the vehicle. “For display Only”

THE GRAY BUILDING FIRE OF 1939

By George “Smokey” Bass
Box 15 Club of Los Angeles
(Rest in Peace Smokey Bass – This story was written in 1989)

The Gray Building fire gave the LAFD its first golden opportunity to demonstrate its new heavy duty and innovative manifold wagons, duplex pumpers, water tower/truck combination and all metal 100’ hydraulic aerial ladder. This 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.

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.

The Tragedy

Tragically, this fire also caused the line of duty deaths of two firefighters: Firefighter Joseph W. Kacl of Truck 3, and Auto Fireman John C. Hough of Engine 3.

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, and Batt 1 were dispatched.

Heavy smoke was coming from the second and third floor windows as Engine 3 turned south on Broadway. There was no doubt in anyone’s minds that they had a working fire.

Capt. Jones spotted Engine 3 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 raised their new 100 foot aerial to the roof of the fire building. Later in the fire, a 2 1/2 inch hand line would be directed into the upper floors from this ladder, as the fire spread through to the fifth floor. Truck 3 also threw their two 35 foot extensions to the original fire floor for access and hand line advancement.

Engine 5, under the command of Capt. Zink, laid two 3 1/2 lines to a position in line with Engine 3’s wagon at the southern edge of the fire building. 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.

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 and the truck raised their 85 foot wood aerial to the roof of the adjacent four story Trustee 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.

Fire Chief Ralph J. Scott took command of the fire and special called Water Tower Truck 24 to the 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.

Firefighter Deaths

During this attack on the Gray Building fire, two structural failures occurred. First, the second floor collapsed without warning, carrying Firefighter Joseph W. Kacl, who was on the nozzle, to his ultimate death in the rubble. As his fellow firefighters attempted to rescue Firefighter Kacl from this pile of burning rubble, 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, Nov. 7.

Auto Fireman John C. Hough of Engine 3, was struck in the head by falling debris during rescue operations. He later succumbed to injuries, passing away on December 12, 1939.
The Rude Building, the northern exposure, was destroyed by a three-alarm fire in 1951. The Rude Building fire of 1951 raised serious fears during fire fighting operations that there might be a floor collapse similar to the fate that befell the Gray Building. Frank’s note: My Dad Stan was an Engineer on the Duplex pump from Fire Station 3 at the Rude Building fire. He had some interesting stories to tell.)

On November 6, 1961, 38 years after the Gray Building fire, the LAFD had a major conflagration that has come to be called the Bel Air fire. Thus, November 6 has seen two major incidents in the history of the LAFD.

Submitted by Frank Borden

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