In the early morning hours of Monday, January 31st, Stockton Fire Department, Engine 2 responded to a rubbish fire in their first in, mere blocks from their station. Captain Vidal “Max” Fortuna, and his crew were just two hours from making relief and were responding to what was supposed to be just another routine “rubbish.” Tragically, this didn’t turn out like the thousands of other runs that Max responded to during his 22-year career. While his firefighter was finishing knocking down the rubbish exposing up against a large one-story commercial, Max was checking for extension into the building. Suddenly, shots rang out of nowhere and he was struck. His crew valiantly tried resuscitating him but Captain Fortuna succumbed to his wounds. The tragic news hit the fire service that was already reeling from deaths across the nation. L.A County, Barstow, St. Louis, and Baltimore all lost members in violent and tragic fires that month and Max would make it seven.
The last time Stockton experienced a line-of-duty death was 25 years ago to the week when two firefighters were killed rescuing a woman in a house fire. Losing Max was a devastating blow felt by all. A memorial service was planned and on Monday February 7th, a reserve Engine staffed with Firefighter Paramedic Rob Katz (DT 81), Firefighter Anthony Kong (10-A, recently promoted to Engineer), Engineer Brian Marshall (41-A) & Captain Alfred Kuzichev (FPB) drove nine hours and 350 miles up to Stockton, to honor a fallen brother tragically killed in the line of duty.
That evening, the engine would meet up with Chief Terrazas, Chief of Staff Everett, IAFF Secretary & Treasurer Captain Lima, UFLAC President Captain Escobar, and UFLAC Treasurer Captain Albarran. The next morning, with over 3000 members of the fire service in attendance, traveling from across the nation to attend, over 250 engines and trucks, along with over 50 command vehicles assembled as part of the funeral detail for Captain Fortuna. Engines in attendance traveled from up and down California, Arizona, and Nevada. Members from the FDNY flew in as well as engines from Long Beach & Ventura County Fire joining L.A City from the Southern California region.
The entire Stockton Fire Department’s 12 fire stations and over 350 personnel were placed off duty and the city was protected for coverage by nine surrounding agencies. The somber procession was held at the Oakland A’s minor league affiliate ballpark. The stadium was filled to near capacity as Captain Fortuna was escorted in his flag draped casket to the middle of the baseball diamond. This setting was fitting for a man who loved to play and coach baseball. The streets of downtown Stockton were closed off and it seemed as though business came to a halt as hundreds of people lined the streets for hours to pay their respects to a local hero.
One of his best friends, Chief of the Lodi Fire Department, Ken Johnson led the memorial. Friends, colleagues, the mayor of Stockton, and Max’s daughter, Samantha shed light into the incredible and irreplaceable father she was raised by and what an outstanding officer that Stockton and the fire service lost. Max was the quality & caliber of a leader you could go to war with. A husband to his wife for 25 years, a father to his son & daughter, Max was a “lead by example”, “never complain,” and “know your stuff” kind of Captain who lived for his family while serving his community. As his daughter would repeat over and over, “He Was the Best.” When the ceremony ended, the 300-plus apparatus slowly formed up and paid their final respects to Max as the single column drove through Stockton Station 2’s first in, passing by his station on their way to sharing a final meal in honor of Max with their fire service brothers and sisters.
During his 47 years of life, Captain Max Fortuna left an indelible impression on people. Those who knew him will never forget him, and those who heard his story, wish they had the chance to meet the man. In L.A. City style, we represented and showed up when it counted and mattered most. Everywhere in public view, people honked, cheered, waved, and gave thumbs up when they saw the L.A. City Engine on the streets of Stockton. Countless Stockton Firefighters couldn’t believe that we made the trip up and were told that if we were ever back in the area to stop by and pay a visit. Turns out Stockton Fire plays handball as well for wellness while on duty and challenges have been thrown down for the future to solidify the bond that L.A. City formed to assist fellow brothers and a sister who were in their darkest hour after losing one of their own.
Special thanks go out to Chief Terrazas for allowing the journey to be made, to the Planning Section for coordinating and pushing things through with rapid speed, to BC Pete Hsiao from Rescue Maintenance for finding an engine to make the trip, to Drill Tower 81 Staff and recruits who decked the rig out, and special thanks as well to the Valley Shops who made it possible when in the first minutes of the journey, a worn-out valve stem that cracked off an inner duel was quickly replaced in order for the journey to continue. Last but not least, to UFLAC, the IAFF, and CPF who looked after and helped accommodate the four men on the Engine who made their way home and drove the 350 miles back home the following day.
To top off the three-day long journey, after dropping off Rob Katz and the Engine at 81s, the remaining three weary travelers were driving back to the shops to get back to their personal cars when they stumbled across a working structure fire in 89’s first in. Pulling up on scene nearly simultaneously with Task Force 89 to a three-story garden style with fire showing from one unit on the third floor, the three jumped into action, assisted in pulling hose, placing drop bags into operation, aiding an injured burn victim down the stairwell into the arms of paramedics, and even transporting the burn patient in the RA to the hospital.
The trip looked like it was finally coming to an end when Anthony Kong was picked up at Kaiser Panorama City after being diverted from Holy Cross. Strong work from a medic from 10s who safely jumped in where needed without hesitation. At last, back at the shops 12 hours after leaving Stockton, one of the three had his personal car at the shops, accidentally get blocked in until the next morning. Another thank you to A/O Romero & Captain Castaneda for making it work.
The purpose for the trip was to honor Captain Fortuna. The LAFD made the mission a success and everyone involved should be proud for taking part in a special show of respect to honor fallen brother Captain “Max” Fortuna.