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John Petersen, 76; Veteran Inner-City L.A. Firefighter

May 21, 2003|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

Fire Capt. John Petersen, whose half-century career fighting fires in Los Angeles took him from burning hilltops to blazing high-rises, has died. He was 76.

Petersen, who died Friday at Mission Hospital in Mission Viejo, was a gruff-mannered veteran of the days when smoke-eaters earned their nickname by working without air masks. He had suffered from cancer after retiring from the Los Angeles Fire Department in 1999.

He was assigned to busy inner-city fire stations for virtually all of his career. In fact, Petersen spent part of Dec. 13, 1998 -- his 72nd birthday and the date of his 50th anniversary on the job -- leading firefighters into a fiercely burning home a mile northwest of downtown Los Angeles.

"This is a young man's job, but I can do it," Petersen explained at the time. "I enjoy the job. Enjoying your work for 50 years -- you can't buy that."

Friends who were firefighters encouraged Petersen to join the Fire Department after World War II service as a Navy aerial gunner. He often joked about his military career.

"I almost shot down one plane. But it was my own: I put a round in my own tail," he would explain with a laugh.

As a young firefighter, Petersen cut his teeth on rooming house fires on Bunker Hill, a fading downtown neighborhood where turn-of-the-century homes had been converted into apartments. The houses would later be razed to make way for the city's high-rise financial district.

Putting out fires in the late '40s involved brute force more often than brain power. Firemen in those days moved in close and used a lot of water.

"Very rarely did we use breathing apparatus. We had some -- they were in suitcases. We'd use them in basement fires," Petersen told The Times in a 1998 interview.

"We had a lot more mattress fires in those days. And without a breathing apparatus, you took a beating. You'd eat a lot of smoke on a little mattress fire."

In those days, City Hall was the tallest building in town. As returning servicemen struggled to start families and buy their first homes and automobiles, the Red Car trolley system was the backbone of the city's transportation system.

"L.A. in the '40s was outstanding. It was beautiful," Petersen sad.

"We didn't have freeways -- I can remember them building the Pasadena Freeway. But there wasn't the kind of traffic we have now."

After working in the Bunker Hill area, Petersen was assigned to fire stations in Highland Park, Lincoln Heights and South Los Angeles. He then spent 18 years at Station 10 at Pico and Olive before being assigned to Station 20 in the Echo Park area, where he worked for eight years.

Petersen's long career included fire line work at the 1961 Bel-Air brush fire and front line danger in the 1965 Watts riots. He was there when a wall fell and killed a firefighter on 120th Street. A short time later, he said, he took cover when rioters began shooting at his engine company.

The routine use of air tanks and face masks was only one of the remarkable changes in firefighting that Petersen experienced during his 50 years on the job.

The inclusion of women as firefighters was another one, he acknowledged.

"We've changed a little," Petersen recalled. "Having women in the firehouse has made gentlemen out of us. Some of us."

More significant was the arrival of automatic fire sprinklers in hotels and commercial buildings. That reduced the size of structure fires and the loss of life, he said.

Other technical advances eliminated some workplace hazards -- such as the firetruck door that flew open and sent Petersen tumbling into the intersection of Pico and Olive streets while racing to a fire call.

But other advances were more challenging -- such as the self-closing fire door at one apartment house that closed behind several firefighters during a 1998 blaze. "A couple of them got a little burned," Petersen said.

Petersen, of San Clemente, is survived by his wife of 56 years, Betsy; sons John and Christopher; daughter Kathleen Koblik; six grandchildren; and two sisters, Vivianne Nikolenko and Barbara Tacy.

Funeral services are scheduled for 10 a.m. Friday at Ocean Hills Community Church, 3222 Del Obispo, San Juan Capistrano. Burial will follow at Pacific View Memorial Park, 3500 Pacific View Drive, Corona del Mar.

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