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Death of a Firefighter : First Blaze Fatality in Conservation Corps History Was a 'Good' Son Who Just Wanted to Help Others

September 11, 1987|BEVERLY BEYETTE and GARRY ABRAMS | Times Staff Writers

He was laying out the clothes in which his son will be buried Saturday, thinking about how unfair it was, his only son's life cut short at 18. "Ike" Lindsay Sr. was thinking, too, about the God who has always been good to him and his family. Finally he swallowed and said, "The least I could have done is give Him a good guy."

By all accounts, Sir Isaac Lindsay Jr.--also "Ike" to friends and family--was a "good guy," the kind of kid who fed the neighbors' dog when they were away, let his younger sister tag along with him and his friends to Magic Mountain, brought his mother wildflower bouquets.

When he died last weekend in a freak accident after six days of helping fellow California Conservation Corps members fight blazes that blackened half a million acres of Northern California forest, he became a statistic.

Lindsay Jr., the second on-duty firefighter to die in these blazes (U.S. Forest Service's Bruce Visser of San Bernardino County was killed Sept. 1 in a motorcycle crash) was the first CCC member in the corps' 12-year history to lose his life fighting a fire. But most people who tuned into weekend news broadcasts would remember only that a Rialto man had been killed; few would even recall his name.

His short life was not extraordinary. At Fontana High School, from which he was graduated in June, he was neither valedictorian nor football hero. With a C average, he was not on a college track.

But Charles Redd, his high school counselor for three years, remembers him as "the type of person any father would love to have as a son. He was never in any trouble. He was never a discipline problem."

Redd smiled and said, "We did have an attendance problem in his senior year. He had a girlfriend and they were more in love than they were in school."

He remembers, too, "He always had a beautiful smile." No, Lindsay Jr. was not a leader, more a follower, and "his grades did not measure up to his ability." But he was "a good person, a good person," Redd said. "We were very proud to have him."

The week before graduation, Redd recalled, "He came into my office and said, 'Mr. Redd, I just want to say thanks for all the things you have done for me. I know I haven't done my best, but I'm going to put it together now . . . . I want to really be something in life."

He was not to have that chance.

Sir Isaac Lindsay Jr. died when improbability and bad luck came together about 8 p.m. Saturday as he and his crew started back to base camp near Travis after a long day of firefighting in the Six Rivers National Forest, about 70 miles west of Redding.

A 100-foot-tall, 32-inch-thick Douglas fir suddenly toppled, hammering through the steel roof of the truck in which Lindsay was riding. He was facing to the rear, seated at one end of a four-passenger bench seat just behind the cab. Nine other passengers in the truck were injured.

In the truck in front, someone had heard the cracking of the giant tree trunk, Trinity County Coroner George Wiles said, and had screamed into a radio for the second truck to stop "but apparently they didn't hear, or he was on a different frequency."

CCC spokeswoman Susanne Levitsky said the fir was a "healthy looking green tree that did not appear to be burned" and was in an area that had been checked for such dangers. But others at the accident scene said they believed fire had damaged the tree's roots.

Darin Johnson, 21, of Chino, crew leader of the 16-member firefighting group that included Lindsay, suffered a dislocated hip in the accident. He said Lindsay was "getting ready to nod off to sleep . . . and right that second the tree came right through the roof."

Normally, coroner Wiles said, a tree hitting a steel barrier would break, but this one did not and caved in the roof of the truck. "The brunt of it was right over where he was sitting." Lindsay suffocated, he said, pinned in a doubled over position. "He was unconscious and probably died in two to three minutes."

There was no chance of rescuing him, Wiles said, as chain saws had to be brought in to cut out the tree. The Coast Guard flew in a "jaws" rig by helicopter from Fortuna, but could not budge the tree. Wiles estimated that it was "at least an hour and a half before they got him out."

"I knew he was dead right away," Johnson said, "because that part of the carrier got taken out. Actually, I yelled to him about three times and there was no answer."

Johnson described young Lindsay as "a strong kid with a good personality. He got along with everybody and kept morale up in our crew. When people were getting sick of (firefighting), he would talk to them and kind of give them a boost."

"I loved him," said Ken Nichols, a corps member from West Covina who was in the same truck but escaped injury. "He was like my best friend up there. He would always find some way to make me laugh . . . ."

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