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Orange County | Dana Parsons

A Fire Too Hot, a Night Too Hard to Forget

January 30, 2002|Dana Parsons

Every time a call comes into a firehouse, you have the chance to do something great.

It's a part of the job that drives you, knowing that by the time you go home at night, you might save someone's life. With that, however, comes a flip side: By day's end, you might see something you don't want to see--and may not ever forget.

Orange County Fire Authority Capt. Greg Boothe, a 25-year veteran, knew he was facing one of those moments Monday night when the call came into the Placentia station: house fire on Joan Way. A flurry of reports made it clear during the two-mile trip to the scene that this wasn't food burning on a stove or a bogus report of someone seeing smoke.

This would be the real thing for Boothe and his two-man crew out of Station 35. Such was the size of the huge spreading column of fire that it didn't take long for them to get within sight of the flames.

Boothe could scarcely believe it. How could the thing be burning so badly out of control this quickly?

There would be no heroics on this night.

A father and his three sons died when they couldn't get out of the second-floor bedrooms and no one could get to them. Boothe and his crew, which joined about 20 other firefighters, were told upon arrival that it wasn't safe to go in. That runs against a firefighter's instinct and training, which is to make the effort to save someone. But there was no reason to challenge the battalion chief's decision.

No one, Boothe realized, could survive that inferno.

On Tuesday afternoon, some 15 hours after he first got to the fire scene, Boothe, 48, was back at work--this time in a Buena Park station. He was in the middle of a two-day shift, a shift he'll forever remember as the one where four people died and no firefighter had a chance to make it otherwise.

He sounded beat, not having slept since Sunday. His Monday shift began at 7 a.m. and he'd been getting ready for bed that night when the call came in. Moments later, he was in the midst of the "controlled chaos" that a firefighter's job can become.

"The boss says to stay out [of the house]," he says, "but you're still trying to work your way in, looking through windows, doors, seeing if there's some angle to try to save somebody."

No one found any. Firefighters aren't supposed to be reckless. "You can't have 42 John Waynes out there," Boothe says. "If you do, you wind up with firefighters saving firefighters."

Still, he says he's taken his share of chances. "If a mother says, 'My baby is in there,' all bets are off," Boothe says. Unless, that is, it was a fire like Monday's.

"It was just so ferocious," he says.

Like most firefighters I've met, Boothe isn't given to histrionics. He thinks of the job as just that, a proud way to earn a living. When he talks about it, it's without any hint either of bravado for the good times or paralyzing anguish over the bad times.

He has a thing he tells surviving victims when he gets to a scene. "We tell them the bad is stopping now. We tell them things are now going to start getting better. When you're so in tune to making things better, and then get to one like last night, you say, 'I can't fix that.'"

Helpless as he felt, the worst was yet to come. An hour or so after his crew arrived--when the fire had been knocked down--he and two other captains went in. They made it to the rooms where the father and the boys died.

"We knew they were upstairs," Boothe says, softly. "I've seen some people burn in fires. Old people, people in wheelchairs.... To see what I saw last night was pretty horrific. To see children like that, it just rips your heart out. You just think of what the scenario they would have had to go through to get to what I looked at."

He isn't of a mind to elaborate, partly because the scene is part of the investigation and partly because there's no real point now. "I'll say this," he says, "tell me the intensity of a fire when you're awake but you can't move more than three feet. It tells you how intense it was, that they couldn't get out."

A Fire Authority chaplain is available, but Boothe thinks he'll be all right. Over the years, he thinks he's learned how to handle the terrible things he sometimes sees.

He's seen a close friend suffer a heart attack on the job. He's held a dying 17-year-old boy who had shot himself in the head, fighting off tears as the boy asked him to squeeze his hand tighter because things were getting dark and he was getting cold.

And then a night like Monday comes along. Perhaps on another night, he agrees, the news will be joyous. Perhaps lives will be saved.

"Had anything gone positive for us, all that would have been possible," he says. "But we got kicked in the teeth right off the bat. We didn't have any opportunity to give it a shot."

*

Dana Parsons' column appears Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Readers may reach Parsons by calling (714) 966-7821 or by writing to him at The Times' Orange County edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626, or by e-mail to dana.parsons@latimes.com.

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