Stories

One the most exciting features of fire buffing and being a firefighter is simply not knowing where you will be and what you will be doing in the next few minutes. For many people, that uncertainty would be intolerable, but for most firefighters and fire buffs, it's what makes it all worthwhile. I can remember thinking to myself on numerous occasions, while crouched down in a hallway of a burning apartment or the like, that this was not at all where I expected to be just moments before. Such sudden change was rarely a complaint, though (except when starting from a toilet seat, of course). It is out of a life filled with just such moments that I have amassed a collection of stories, most humorous, some sad, and here presented are a few of them (some "tellable" ones). -- Tom McDonald


Do We Have the Blood?

It was a cold Tuesday night back in December of 1977. I was a mere teenager, yet I did have a coveted driver's license. Having been a fire buff for a couple of years and having taken "Photography" at my school, I was prone to "chasing" fires at all hours, much to my mother's chagrin. Ironically, it was she who took me to my first big fire only three years earlier, but it was an act I believe she has regretted ever since. Dad, on the other hand, didn't mind running me to a fire during the day, but he was loathe to go anywhere after bedtime. Well, I didn't have to concern myself with either of them, anymore. I was teenager-with-license on Christmas break. Life was good!

I had been introduced months before to a group of fire buffs who occupied the old fire station at 2403 Milam (what is now the Houston Fire Museum). Every night usually saw at least a handful of them hanging out at what had become known as "Chuck's Place," as in Chuck Buschardt. Chuck had literally set up shop in the old building, and he was there just about every night. Just a decade into his HFD career, he had already worked out a special job (titled, I believe, "Assistant to the Fire Chief"), procured a city vehicle with all the bells and whistles, and had the leeway to work basically when he wanted to as long as he put in 40 hours a week.

About 9 that evening, I noted scanner traffic about some HFD units headed to Galveston. I couldn't really deduce what was going on until a bulletin hit TV several minutes later. The newsman said that a grain elevator had just exploded and that there were many casualties and a big fire. I immediately called "Chuck's Place" to see if the HFD canteen truck, then housed there, would be responding. Chuck answered and said, "Well, I think a few of the guys are thinking about taking it, but they haven't left yet."

"Tell them to think about it for about 15 more minutes. I am headed down there," I replied. Racing down the Southwest Freeway, I arrived in about ten minutes. There were only about three guys there, but, fortunately, one of them was David Cole. Why fortunately? He was one of only three buffs who had permission to drive the HFD's canteen truck. It was a yellow delivery van with a little red circulating warning light on top and no siren. Always more cautious than I, probably because he was a few years older, David was hesitant at first to go to Galveston. Eventually, we decided to go out the highway to Galveston as far as Scarsdale Road, then see how the incident was progressing.

We quickly loaded up the van with all the coffee and stale pastries we had in the building and headed out. We were never really in any hurry because we didn't really know if we were going to end up going all the way down there. As we drove out the Gulf Freeway approaching Scarsdale Road, we noted from the HFD radio that units were still being sent to Galveston. We decided to finish the trip, about 30 more miles.

It was about then, though, that I looked in my rear-view mirror. I was in the "captain's" seat, but I could see a pair of headlights coming up behind us on the freeway that made it look like we were standing still. "I wonder who this is," I said to David.

In seconds, a state trooper car was even with us, on my side. David neither had been speeding nor had he been using the red "bubble-gum" on top, so I wondered what the officer wanted. He paralleled us for several seconds, yet did not motion to pull over or anything. Then, a voice came over the cruiser's PA, "Do you have the blood?"

Stunned, I just looked at David. He already had one of his patented smirks going on which caused me to start grinning, too. "DO we have the blood?" I asked him.

"Hell, no, we don't have any blood," David said with a nervous laugh. I turned, looked the officer square in the face, and nodded affirmatively. I could always say that I THOUGHT he had asked if we had any donuts. After all, it was a cop asking.

The die was cast. The trooper's car gunned ahead of us in a tire-smoking show of authority. The officer flipped on his warning lights and positioned himself in our lane in front of us. We, including all of the previous Friday's stock at Mrs. Baird's Bakery Thrift Store and about 20 pounds of Folger's, were headed to Galveston with a police escort.

There have been a few times in my life where I would have liked to have had a voice recorder, but didn't; the ensuing minutes in that van was one such time. It was during that period that David and I discussed our strategy of shedding our escort. In a stroke of brilliance, neither David nor I had brought a map of Galveston. Lesson One: if you go to a disaster in another city, take a map.

We each knew a little bit about Galveston, like where the seawall and Gaido's were, but neither of us knew exactly where the grain elevator was. It was just one of those huge edifices you can picture in your mind from having been somewhere so many times, but you really don't know exactly where it is.

Anyway, we decided to take the first exit after crossing the causeway, then hide behind a building for about ten minutes, making sure the officer had made it to John Sealy Hospital (undoubtedly where he would have been greeted warmly after delivering his message of "the blood's" impending arrival).

We "hid" in the Galveston Daily News' parking lot, snacking on dry bear claws for a few minutes. When we resumed, we easily found the grain elevator because it had a giant, well-lit plume of smoke emitting from it. Not hard to find.

As David maneuvered the van through a maze of fire trucks and ambulances, I spotted a giant shed that looked like a perfect spot for a "Rehab sector" (today's term). Ironically, someone else already had spotted it, and it was being used just for that purpose. We parked and walked into the open-air shed. Salvation Army and Red Cross volunteers had already laid out a huge spread for firefighters. None of them were there, though, but I did notice a cop with a Rosenberg shoulder patch (a town 90 miles away) was busy downing donuts by the handful. He probably was low on sugar after that long drive, judging by what sucrose his girth would demand. I remember estimating him to be about 400 pounds. The only problem with the "canteen's" site selection, though, was that it was right next to a makeshift morgue. That made for very awkward snacking.

We checked in with two ladies who appeared to be running the "canteen." Both assured us they had plenty of supplies and that they had everything under control. David and I then walked a couple of hundred yards or so to the elevator, or what was left of it. It was a gruesome sight, to say the least. More than 20 persons were killed that night when a spark ignited grain dust underneath a hopper car unloading its cargo. The fireball raced through an underground conveyor and into the head house of the elevator, literally blowing the top off the structure. More than four dozen fire and rescue units from all across southeast Texas, plus an untold number of ambulances, were called to that scene on December 27, 1977. I later found out blood soon did arrive at the Galveston hospital. I hope the state trooper didn't end up with too much powdered sugar on his face, though.


Where the Hell are my Firefighters?

Houston firefighters have long prided themselves as being "interior" firefighters, meaning they tend to penetrate further inside a burning structure with, hopefully, more success, than firefighters in many other departments. When I was a captain on Engine 82 in southwest Houston, we were sent one evening to a reported house fire on Braesheather Street.

As soon as we left the station, I noticed a "loom-up," a visible column of smoke against the pitch dark sky. Under normal circumstances, the location was just about a draw in terms of who would make it there first, us or Engine 48; but, on our shift, Engine 48 might make it there before shift change. So, I knew I would have my hands full and be first-in.

On arrival, I knew it would be a strange fire since there was an off-duty fireman I knew standing in his pajamas in the middle of the street directing us to the fire. I have often wondered about people who do that. Do they think we can't see the flames and looming column of smoke right behind them? He later told me he was waving at us to tell us the residents of the burning home were out and staying in his house nearby.

Anyway, we pulled up and I glanced at the house. It was your standard house for the area, a one-story of about 2,000 square feet. The entire living area was ablaze, so I told my firefighters to pull an "inch and 3/4" to the front door, a standard HFD procedure.

I always hated the protective hood that HFD issued, so I never wore it. It was too thick for my liking. Even though it was that thickness that was supposed to offer added protection, it also made detecting if you were in a spot that might be fixing to have a flashover almost impossible. I desired a hood that offered the sweet-spot combination of some thickness for protection AND the ability to know when I was in an environment that was too hot. So, I used a three-layer Nomex© sock hood. It worked well, including in the case I am fixing to describe.

My nozzleman was a firefighter named Anthony Taylor. Anthony was and still is a character and a very aggressive firefighter. He was backed up by a fireman off another shift named Chris Bodin. The two men entered the front door of the house basically standing up, and both were wearing HFD-issued hoods. I, in my sock hood on the other hand, crouched down just inside the front door where I could pull them slack and, I thought, keep an eye on them.

However, the two firefighters disappeared into a glowing cloud of orange as I felt the hose being pulled ahead of me. I continued to pull slack for them, but the left side of my head suddenly felt like I had just rested it on a barbecue grill. I turned to the left and noticed that my two firefighters had overshot the first room of the house, the door to which was just to my left and from which flames were lapping on my left ear.

I started to tug on the hose to signal them to come back and put the first room out before they progressed any further. To my astonishment, the hose retracted easily and in seconds I ended up with the nozzle in my hand. "Where the hell are my firefighters?" I thought to myself.

I looked up into the glow and immediately saw one of them for a split-second before I saw his knee go right into my facemask and knock me on my can. Those two guys bailed out of that house faster than Jesse Owens at the Berlin Olympics. Anthony is no tiny guy, either, and I found out just how big when he sprinted across my chest in his quest for the exit.

Dazed, I, too, then crawled out into the yard where Anthony reported gleefully to me, "That's a hot son-of-a-bitch, Cap!" Oh, really? I didn't know; I was trimming my toenails on the tailboard while you guys were in there. Anthony, you should get with the guy in the pajamas and start a club to alert people to the obvious. Then, Mike Thorp, the IC, came over and showed why he should join that club, too. "If you guys are planning to go back in there," he said with a grin, "you probably should take a two-and-a-half." With all these wisenheimers around, I thought I should just go on to Rehab and avoid the rush.

Actually, the fire was so hard to suppress with the smaller line because the house had a metal roof on it which held the heat in. Pretty much every other house in the neighborhood had a composition shingle roof, so the joke was on me.


Water Wars

Yes, Virginia, firemen do play pranks. When I worked at Station 7 in the early 1980's, we developed a rivalry with Station 16, the next firehouse west. There were two other stations in our district at that time, 8 and 25. I don't know why 16 became the rival, but it did.

One beautiful spring afternoon, I was "riding up," driving Engine 7. The normal driver was riding up, too, as the engine's captain. He told me that he needed to run over to Station 16 for "an errand." I did not ask why and quickly assumed my position on the rig.

Our normal parking space on visits to Station 16 was by the fuel pumps in the rear parking lot, but the acting captain told me to back our engine onto the front slab, which I did. He then told me to "flip it into pump gear real quick and step on the accelerator." I did, and the next thing I knew, the deck gun on our engine had been put into full operation by the two firefighters in the jump seats. A healthy stream of water was being trained into an open window on the station's second floor, ironically, the captain's office.

"Oh, that ain't right," I definitely recall saying to my acting officer.

His beet-red face indicated he was laughing uncontrollably, but no noise was coming out. When he did regain the ability to move air, he sputtered, "Shut up and drive!"

I quickly engineered the rig back into road gear and returned with haste to our firehouse, all four of us on the engine needing absorbent undergarments from loss of all body functions, a hazard that often results from doing something that diabolical and funny. When we went upstairs into the day room, we had to have looked like a bunch of school boys who had just set fire to the girl's restroom. Chief John Ward was reclined on the sofa puffing away on his cigarette (you could smoke in the station back then). He started grinning himself, just like a father who could tell his boys had been up to no good. "Do I want to know what you've been up to?" he asked.

"No, sir, you don't," replied the acting captain. Chief Ward, as was his custom, excused himself and returned to his office, ostensibly to wait for the phone call that would likely be forthcoming.

It never came, but what did come was the sound, minutes later, of an engine retarder signaling the arrival of a big truck outside the station. Our firehouse had no windows on three of four sides, and the truck was on one of those windowless sides. We knew it was "16's," but we couldn't see what they were doing.

Within seconds, they could be heard in pump gear, too, and a large stream of water soon was clearly hitting our brick station. Then, the loudest crash you've ever heard made everyone's giddy smiles turn to looks of horror. What on Earth was that? Chief Ward quickly emerged from his office, beet-red, too, but not in a happy way. "This (expletive) stops now... understand!!!" he said. It wasn't a question; everyone nodded in shame.

Evidently, Engine 16's crew got scared, too, and they quickly were in road gear and in full retreat. When we walked out of "Fort 7" to survey the damage, we found that they had knocked off the entire rain gutter on the front of the station. I don't know how that one got reported to the shop, but by the following tour of duty, it had been replaced.


Keystone Firemen

To drivers on Elgin Street one afternoon in the early 1980's, it must have looked like the fire department's equivalent of Keystone Cops. A box alarm came in for a reported house fire and all three units at Station 7 responded immediately, chief, engine, and ladder truck.

Except that the chief's car went west on Elgin, the engine went north on Austin, and the ladder went east on Elgin. Back then, the HFD dispatching was all done by voice without any printed page or computer screen to verify the address.

The chief's driver thought he heard Dennis at Boston and headed west for that location. The engine driver was of a mind that he said Dennis at Austin, so he headed north. The ladder truck driver heard Dennis at Bastrop and proceeded east to that locale. The correct answer, the final answer, was Dennis at Bastrop. Needless to say, the ladder truck arrived first and tapped out a small fire.


Will Someone Please Call the Fire Department?

Station 7 was the sight again of yet another humorous story. One Sunday morning, I was driving the chief's car and a church fire was reported at Gray and Bastrop Streets. We arrived quickly and noted the unusual yet proper sight of the entire congregation standing outside. There was just a light puff of smoke visible from a side door. Upon investigating, we found a sofa had been set on fire accidentally by a smoking parishioner. We tapped out the box, but the dispatcher asked me to call him "immediately." I found a phone and did.

"What was burning over there?" he asked urgently.

"A sofa. Why?" I replied.

"We must have had 150 calls reporting that fire," said the irritated dispatcher.

Come to find out the preacher of the church was broadcasting his service over the radio when the sanctuary started to fill with smoke. Not willing to step down from his pulpit and make the call himself, the minister implored the congregation, "Will someone please call the fire department?"

Two or three people at the church did, but so did 147 or 148 sitting at home listening to him on the radio.


A Pants Tug O' War

In the early 1990's, fellow HFD captain Charlie Wilson and I were sent to New York by the Board of Trustees of the Houston Fire Museum to attend FDNY's Medal Day ceremony and report back on how a program like that should be set up.

We went and, because we spent all our per diem money the first night, we ended up having to stay at FDNY stations for the remaining two nights. One of those nights was spent at the quarters of Rescue 2 on Bergen Street in Brooklyn.

Rescue 2's quarters was an old, single-bay, two-story station in a run-down section, dead-center in the middle of the borough. When we arrived, we noted high razor-wire fencing around the parking lot, and we were met by a gray-haired firefighter standing in the sole, yet empty, bay. "Where's the squad?" we asked.

"They're on a call. They'll be back shortly," replied the firefighter.

We walked inside, and he put a pot of coffee on for us. We asked him why he was not with the truck. He explained he had been hurt a month or so before and was not cleared for active duty. He explained that the department allowed guys like him to "house-sit" at stations in high-crime areas.

Soon, the rig was back and even sooner it was back on the road again, this time with the two of us aboard. Within four hours, we had made seven runs. It became 6 o'clock and dinner was still just in the concept stage. I thought to myself that the "security" guy could be cooking, but that was not to be.

About 9 that evening, we ate a nice dinner of Philly cheese steaks, or I guess I should say Brooklyn cheese steaks. It was very filling and some of the firemen began to stretch out on sofas and recliners in the first-floor lounge (which adjoined the kitchen right behind the apparatus).

I don't know why they encouraged us to "get beds" in the dorm, which was directly above the kitchen on the second floor, because the firehouse was so busy. Somehow, the firemen found sheets, blankets, and pillows for us. Charlie and I dutifully made up our bunks. About 11, after about Run 11, we decided to lie down.

We climbed the long flight of wooden stairs and entered the already dark dorm. After my eyes grew accustomed to no light, I noticed the only person in bed was the "house-sitter." Boy, I thought to myself, he was sure earning his keep. He didn't cook and now he's already sacked out.

In that FDNY station, unlike Houston stations, the lights throughout the house did not automatically come on when a call was received. A watchman had to do it, but because it was a single-unit house, they didn't post a watchman. They simply listened for tones to sound from a watch office speaker near the front of the station. I didn't know that when Charlie and I got comfortably into our beds. I also didn't know that Charlie, in the dark, had set his pants on the same side as mine.

I was in pre-REM mode when my subconscious detected dispatch tones, and it took about two seconds to convince my brain that action was required on my part. "Charlie! Charlie! I think we have a run," I announced in the pitch dark of the dorm. I began to put on my pants, but without light, I had no idea if my leg was headed into the right hole. It is most unnerving to apply pants to one leg in the dark only to find out there is a leg from another human being in the other slot.

Truck engine starting. "Charlie, and I hope that's you, find your own damn pair of pants and get out of mine." Once panted in our respective pairs, Charlie and I made our way to the dorm door.

Truck moving. "Charlie, hurry up! We're gonna miss this run." Upon exiting the dorm, I did notice FDNY's finest injured firefighter was snoring peacefully in his bed. Geez, will somebody fire this guy?

Siren blurping; truck on ramp. "Where's the pole, Charlie?" "There is no pole, just the stairs!" "You gotta be kidding me!" "Oh, we're toast!"

We caught Rescue 2 in the middle of Bergen, and not without the aid of two firemen who reached out the back door to tug us onboard. I noticed devilish grins on their faces as they lifted us up, and then I knew why they had insisted we get beds in the dorm. Run No. 12 was another turnaround. When we returned to quarters, the overhead door was wide open and "Mr. Security" was still cutting zees in the dorm.