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3,300 Mourn Men Killed in Copter Crash

March 29, 1998|LARRY GORDON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Three sets of boots, helmets and firefighter jackets rested on the black carpeted floor of the Los Angeles Sports Arena on Saturday. They belonged to three men who would never wear them again, three who died trying to save the life of a child.

In the surrounding seats, some 3,300 people gathered to honor three members of the Los Angeles Fire Department who were killed Monday in the crash of a helicopter ambulance in Griffith Park.

The joint memorial service for Michael A. Butler, Michael D. McComb and Eric F. Reiner was an all too familiar ritual of mourning for a department that lost another firefighter in action just three weeks ago.

Once again, the bagpipes aired their sad tunes and fire station bells rang 10 times to signify a fallen comrade. An immense procession of firetrucks again glided through the city and an army of black uniforms silently marched behind engines bearing coffins.

"They were engaged in an endeavor that is the consummate measure of human greatness, and they gave their lives for that most noble of causes--the protection and the safety of others," Alfred K. Whitehead, general president of the International Assn. of Fire Fighters said during the two-hour service.

A mountain of floral arrangements lined the podium behind the dead men's equipment. Large video screens displayed photos of paramedics Butler and Reiner, close friends who were both 33, and of McComb, an apparatus operator who would have turned 49 on Saturday.

Whitehead read a message of sympathy sent by President Clinton from his trip in Africa. The president and others also referred sorrowfully to Norma Vides, the 11-year-old Sun Valley girl who died in the crash while being taken from the scene of a San Fernando Valley car wreck to Los Angeles Childrens Hospital in East Hollywood. The cause of the accident is under investigation.

In addition, speakers repeatedly mentioned Capt. Joseph Dupee, who became the department's first fatality in 13 years when he was killed in an industrial building blaze March 8.

"We gather for the loss of three more fallen heroes," Mayor Richard Riordan told the audience.

"With our sorrow, we also celebrate their lives, the lives of heroes who gave their lives on a mission of mercy, a mission that has brought them to heaven."

Other speakers included Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Los Angeles, and Fire Department Chief William Bamattre.

Los Angeles Opera soprano Elissa Johnston sang "Amazing Grace," and the Hollywood Bowl Brass Ensemble and St. John Eudes Choir performed.

Sitting in the front row seats often reserved for basketball fans were the widows and families. Butler's wife, Maria Rosario, is four months pregnant with their first child.

McComb is survived by his wife, Lorene, three grown children and four grandchildren.

Reiner's wife, Lisa, and their two sons and two daughters, ranging in age from 2 to 9, later told reporters how proud they were.

"I love my father very much. He taught me to have no fear, and I know he is in heaven," said Jessica, 7. She wore a pink dress and spoke quickly, reading from a piece of paper.

Nine-year-old Nicholas, dressed in a blue suit, echoed his sister and added: "Now I am the man of the house."

Their mother managed to hang onto a smile as the youngsters spoke. Then she explained why, in a sea of black clothes, she wore a stylish red dress and Hawaiian flower lei to the service: It was in memory of a wonderful trip she and her husband had taken to Hawaii last year.

Earlier in the day, Nicholas Reiner saluted while a trumpet sounded at Arleta's Fire Station 81, where Reiner and Butler were based.

Two flags were lowered as part of a somber ceremony. In the station's driveway, two fire engines bore the men's coffins.

Darline Spaihour, 76, walked eight blocks from her home to the Arleta station to pay homage to the fallen firefighters.

She said paramedics had helped her husband when he fell and broke three ribs.

"I hear the sirens all the time, and they always make me feel better to know they are close," she said. "My heart just goes out to the families."

A similar ritual was held at Fire Station 90 in Van Nuys, where McComb worked.

There, an engine carried one of his fire jackets under floral tributes. (There was no coffin because McComb, a Crestline resident who was planning to retire this summer after 26 years of service, was to be cremated.)

The two processions of fire equipment and cars converged and drove the 20 miles or so on freeways toward the Sports Arena in Exposition Park.

A large array of engines from other cities joined in on Figueroa Street. In all, more than 200 trucks and ambulances, all flashing lights, participated.

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