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A Long and Extinguished Career

Injury Forces Out Firefighter at 74--but Son, Grandson Serve

July 23, 1998|GREG HERNANDEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Firefighter Donald Wright always figured he'd die on the job, not from smoke inhalation or fire but simply from old age.

But four months shy of his 75th birthday, the man believed to be California's oldest professional firefighter has been forced to retire. After 52 consecutive years with the Santa Ana Fire Department, Wright finally has been separated from his beloved vocation by a back injury suffered last year.

"If I hadn't hurt my back, I'd still be working," he said. "I have another good 50 years left in me. . . . Getting up in the middle of the night never did bother me until I got to about age 70."

Although he'd rather be working, Wright will be presented with a proclamation Aug. 3 by the City Council honoring him for five decades of service.

That stint would end after a traffic accident in May 1997. Wright, a fire captain and two paramedics were trying to pull a woman, whom they guessed weighed 300 pounds, from her wrecked car.

"I was standing in an awkward position, and just as the captain yelled that I was going to get hurt, I felt a burning sensation," Wright remembered.

His injuries, a hernia and two compressed disks, immediately sidelined him. After a year of physical therapy, Wright had to concede that he would never return to work.

"I was going to die on the job," he said, puffing on a cigar at his Tustin home. "I loved the job, taking people out of burning buildings and burning cars. Nothing bothered me. The only fear I ever had was being in the shower, shampoo in my hair, and the bells ringing. But after I found out [my back] wouldn't heal, that scared me."

Wright jokes that his one regret is being outlasted on the job by his son, Doug, a Newport Beach firefighter since 1964.

"I told him if he could wait until next year, we could retire together," said Doug, 55.

"I know he'd still like to be there. It's an occupation that's hard to get out of, but sometimes you have to make way for the younger people."

One of those relative newcomers is 29-year-old Erin Wright, Doug's son and Donald's grandson, who has been a firefighter in Fountain Valley for eight years. Since then, the Wrights have had the distinction of being the only three-generation firefighting family in Orange County.

The grandson said he has long been amazed by his grandfather's stamina.

"He keeps me going," he said. "It's hard to get down when someone who is 40-something years older is still doing the same things I'm doing. He's almost 75 and still like a kid."

Donald and Doug sometimes crossed paths on the job. Once, when Newport Beach was called to help with a blaze in Santa Ana, Doug Wright asked a helmeted firefighter: "Hey, I wonder if you know my son. He works for your department."

"Hey Dad! It's me!" Doug replied.

Father and son have something else in common: They are married to twins. Doug married Pam Wright 34 years ago. His father, a widower, married her sister Diane five years later.

Diane Wright said her husband's forced retirement "was sort of a real blow.

"The joke was that he would never retire, and we all thoroughly believed it. We figured he would be down there at the station at 85 years old, hobbling around. I don't think anyone else would ever hang in there that long."

Santa Ana had four stations and 38 firefighters when Wright arrived in 1946. Today it has 10 stations and almost 300 firefighters. In those years, more than two dozen mayors and eight fire chiefs have come and gone.

In 1983, Wright's career almost ended because of the department's policy then mandating retirement at age 60. But then-Chief Bill Reimer intervened. For the next 14 years, Wright continued to pass the physical exams. And in 1993, he was among those called to help fight storms in Laguna Beach and Malibu.

"After those fires, I could tell that it was really showing on him," said former Chief Bud Carter, Wright's boss then. "For him to be out there and working all night, he was tired. But he said, 'That's my job and that's what I want to do.' It's hard not to admire that."

Fire Capt. Gary Bidgood, Wright's last supervisor, said, "Fire service was always first and foremost in his life and that spilled over into his ability to maintain his work level."

While Wright tries to be good-humored about his retirement, he is not happy. Worse is the almost constant back pain which took his career and even his golf hobby.

"I've been sitting around watching the grass grow and the paint dry. It's miserable."

But memories and pride in what went before help.

"It makes me feel wonderful, because it's the greatest job there is. You're always helping someone. You're always doing something for someone, always."

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