His colleagues at the Engine 9 firehouse called him the "Tasmanian Devil," because when James Howe fought a fire, he really fought.
"He would be completely covered with soot," said Los Angeles County Assistant Fire Chief Jim Ryland. "He had the results of the fire on him--and at the end, there would always be a smile on his face."
With 22 years in the department and three commendations for valor and public service, the 47-year-old Newhall resident had enough seniority to opt for one of the county's less-active fire stations. But that was not for the gung-ho "Tas." Despite having to commute an hour in his beat-up Datsun pickup truck to his station in South-Central Los Angeles, Howe was proud to remain in the department's busiest unit--Battalion 13.
Wednesday night, fire bells sounded at the battalion's nine stations in a tribute to Howe, who died shortly after 8 p.m. from injuries suffered while fighting a fire last week in Huntington Park.
Investigators have ruled that the fire was an arson and that Howe's death was a homicide.
Howe, who drove his station's engine, was one of six county firefighters injured Jan. 9 when an overhanging roof facade collapsed on them as they scrambled across a second-floor balcony of a burning mini-mall. He was pinned under the collapsed roof for about 20 minutes, within a few feet of the flames.
The news of his death hit his colleagues hard, for Howe was not considered an ordinary firefighter.
"I couldn't believe it," Leon Provost, assistant chief of the county's Newhall fire station, said Thursday. "I just thought, 'Why do things have to happen to people like this?' I just went into another room and sat down."
Howe began his firefighting career in 1968 after serving two years as a military policeman in Vietnam. He became the kind of firefighter who would storm into a smoky bedroom in a burning apartment and carry out an unconscious 7-year-old boy. He received his first commendation for that rescue, accomplished on April 29, 1975.
He was the kind of firefighter who would spot a teen-age gang member taking a bike from a 11-year-old deaf-mute boy outside the firehouse, call the Sheriff's Department and hold the gang member until deputies arrived. He received a second commendation for that, on April 13, 1982.
He was nicknamed the "Tasmanian Devil"--after the fierce little marsupial that is native to the island south of Australia--because of the gritty initiative he displayed in the face of dangerous fires, Ryland said.
"He was very aggressive, highly motivated," noted County Fire Chief Mike Freeman.
But he had a gentler side, too.
He was the kind of firefighter whom the neighborhood children knew. Among the condolence calls to Howe's wife and two daughters was one from a five-year veteran of the Fire Department, who said he had been one of those children in South-Central years ago and was inspired by Howe to enter the profession.
When no county work crew was available to repair an area in front of the station, Howe hauled in his own concrete mixer and tools and did the work himself. That won him his third commendation.
An active member of San Fernando Holiness Church, Howe helped build the church's social hall several years ago.
And he continued to work even after his thumb was torn off by a bucking, high-pressure fire hose in May, 1989. The injury didn't keep him off the job long. "He was back," Ryland said. "As we all expected, he considered not having a thumb a mere inconvenience."
"He was one of those people you can point to and say, 'I hope my son turns out like that,' " said Ryland, one of Howe's supervisors. "From the time he was a young pup on the department, everybody who's been around him--young and old, firefighters and non-firefighters--have been influenced by this guy. His legacy will be carried on for many years."
Howe will have a simple burial service but no funeral.
"My dad wouldn't have wanted one," said Howe's 18-year-old daughter, Debbie. "He wasn't the type to dwell on death."