Retired Guys: The Point Fermin Incident – The Rescue Flight that Changed My Life

February 28, 2019

Fred Hare was one of the best pranksters that the LAFD ever produced. Not horseplay pranks but rather pranks that rattled your mind. Most brought laughs but some really bothered the recipients. One of his most famous was a suggestion sent through channels from the “Longer Trek to Chicken Foot Lake Committee.” It was perceived by some that firefighter deaths brought an increase in pay and benefits. The Committee recommended sacrificing a firefighter per week strictly for publicity purposes. Even the Chief Engineer got a great laugh from it.

On the evening of December 31, 1979, we were dispatched to Point Fermin to assist in a rescue of two teenage boys and a firefighter trapped on a cliff during a nighttime wind storm. The youths had climbed up a small ledge but the rising waves were beginning to lap at their feet. Ground crews had lowered FF Frank Vidovich from the top of the cliff but were unable to get him or the youths back up.

I was flying Fire 1, the hoist equipped Huey of that era. My crew from 90’s consisted of Don Bayer – an excellent Navy trained hoist operator, Glenn Prine – one of the finest helitack guys that I ever operated with, the always thinking Dale Dickson as the skid man and Captain Fred Hare as the radio operator and guillotine operator. The guillotine would cut the rescue cable if it was necessary to save the helicopter if things went wrong. Also responding were Pilot Larry Harris and Night Sun operator Rich Purvis in a Jet Ranger light ship.

To complete this rescue, I had to place a portion of the rotor blades over the top of the cliff with about two feet of clearance. Also, the hoist was mounted on the right side of the fuselage and the helicopter’s tail was pointed into a gusty 25 knot quartering wind. Glen Prine, on his own initiative, opened the left door and hung out of the helicopter while hanging on to a seat belt to counter balance the added weight of the victims as they were hoisted up. It was a tight rescue and somewhat risky, but two young men’s lives depended on it.

Returning to quarters, Captain Hare said to me “That was a superb helicopter rescue. I’m going to make you famous.” I thought that it was another Fred Hare prank. Before it was over, all the crew members received LAFD Special Commendations, while Frank Vidovich and I received the Medal of Valor. That led to speaking engagements at public service organizations such as Rotary clubs and Chambers of Commerce. This honed my public speaking abilities which led to community service posts at home, including planning commissioner, city council member and grand juror. When I retired from the fire department, I lectured and consulted internationally on helicopter firefighting and rescues.

One of our awards was from Assemblyman Gerald Felando, whose district included Point Fermin, presented at a luncheon at FS 40. By this time Captain Hare had retired but had sent one of his classic letters with his version of the events of the Point Fermin rescue. Assemblyman Felando read it to those gathered that day:

“I’m sorry that I could not attend the luncheon. Please convey my apologies. Now that I am over 400 miles away and safe from retaliation, I have decided to ease my conscience and tell what really happened that night at Point Fermin.

First, let me say, that contrary to the reports, we were not dispatched to the rescue. The truth is we were returning from an afternoon of swimming and skin diving for lobsters on Catalina and stumbled right into the middle of the rescue operation. To cover our tracks, Pilot Quinn told the incident commander that we had been dispatched.

The incident commander asked Quinn to see if we could make the rescue. I told Quinn “The chief must be nuts.” It’s too windy, too dark, and this team has never made a successful rescue, not even in practice. Quinn begged me to let him make the rescue. He said that he had a bet with his brother (Captain Tim Quinn) for $50 to see who would get the first Medal of Valor.

Meanwhile, we saw a fireman on top of the cliff struggling with three other firemen. (Later, I found out it was Vidovich). Two firemen were holding him down while the other one was putting the rescue harness on him. We saw him break away and run but the three caught him, put the harness on him and pushed him over the cliff. They must have threatened him because you should have seen how fast he descended that cliff.

We landed to discuss whether or not to perform the rescue. I stood firm. “No way are we going to attempt this rescue”. But they were too much for me. They overpowered me and lashed me to the front seat of the helicopter. As Quinn took off, his eyes were glassed over. He kept muttering “I’m going to get a medal; I’m going to get a medal.” I knew the end was near.

The hoist cable was lowered and Vidovich attached it to one of the victims. As we started to hoist the victim up, I tried to get one of my hands free to throw the switch and cut the cable to end this madness, but I was bound too tight. When the first victim was hoisted up, Dickson said to him “If you want to stay up here, it will cost you $5.00.” The victim gladly paid and was brought inside. The second rescue went the same except Bayer demanded $10.00. The victim refused so Bayer started to lower him back down to the pounding surf. The victim pleaded and agreed to pay. He was brought aboard. Quinn looked over to me and asked “Is it possible to get two medals, one for each victim”?

By now they were hoisting Vidovich up to the helicopter, but his harness straps were too long. With the cable all the way up, he was still below the skids. I told the crew to get him inside but they refused, saying “We know Vidovich, he doesn’t have $5.00”. Quinn said “We can’t leave him out there. They might take one of my medals away.” Prine got Vidovich to sign an IOU for $4.95 (fireman’s discount) and brought him in.

The rest is history: Quinn got his medal and won the $50.00 bet. Dickson, Bayer and Prine received Special Commendation and $6.65 each. Vidovich received his medal, which is being held by Prine until he pays his IOU. So, you see. if it had not been for us almost getting caught lobster fishing, the greed of Quinn, Dickson, Prine and Bayer, and Vidovich not being as tough as three truckmen, those two victims would probably still be there.

Thank You – I know I’ll be able to sleep now.”

Fred Hare

About a quarter of the way through, a stunned Felando stopped reading the letter, looked at me and asked “Is this true?” I shrugged my shoulders and smiled. The Assemblyman realized he had been had and joined the rest of the gathered officials in the laughter.

Fred and his wife Nancy now live in Roseville, California. Only he knows the full amount and effects of his pranks.

Thanks to Don Bayer whose help made this story possible. P.Q.

By Pat Quinn

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