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L.A. Then and Now

A blaze that changed firefighting in L.A.

New policy sprang from overuse of water. The fire's victims are two of many named on new memorial.

August 17, 2008|Jia-Rui Chong | Times Staff Writer

One of the most dangerous fires in Los Angeles history began when the owner of a novelty store left water to boil on an electric hot plate and took his dog for a walk.

As towering flames engulfed the stairwell of the five-story Gray Building at Broadway near 3rd Street, thousands of people gathered to watch. Inside, 150 women, all millinery workers, were trapped.

More than 100 firemen responded to the blaze Nov. 6, 1939, armed with state-of-the art pumps and a new apparatus that made it possible to shoot water on higher floors more easily.

The women were saved. But by day's end one firefighter had fallen to his death and another had suffered a head injury that proved fatal.

Joseph W. Kacl, 25, was handling a fire hose on the second story when the water-saturated floor collapsed and he fell into the fire and rubble below, according to the Los Angeles Fire Department Historical Society.

As timbers crashed around them, John Hough, 46, searched for his colleague. At one point, firefighters looked up to see higher floors collapsing toward them. Hough was hit in the head with debris but refused to stop the search for Kacl. A month later, Hough was dead from the effects of a stroke, possibly related to the head injury and overexertion.

Last week, the sacrifices of Kacl, Hough and 252 other firefighters who died while members of the department were recalled when the historical society unveiled its long-awaited Fallen Firefighters Memorial.

"When our firefighters look at this memorial, they don't just see names, they see friends, they see memories and sometimes they see what could have been themselves," said Deputy Chief Emile W. Mack. "We are so grateful to everyone who has given so much of themselves to create this hallowed place where we can remember our friends who have given everything."

Before the dedication of the new memorial -- which features five bronze figures of firefighters, a torch at the top of a limestone arch and trickling waterfalls framing the panel of names -- the historical society organized its memorial services near City Hall at a granite cenotaph.

The monument was erected as a memorial to firefighters who died in World War II. But the stone was often scratched up or streaked with graffiti, said Ted Aquaro, a member of the society's board. The new memorial, in the courtyard of a 1930 firehouse in Hollywood that is home to the society's museum, took four years to complete, at a cost of about $2.2 million.

For the few dozen city officials, firefighters and families gathered Thursday for the ribbon cutting, the names carved into the granite brought back memories. Lisa Radcliffe Wallace, whose father, Harold Radcliffe, died in a helicopter crash in Big Tujunga Canyon in 1974, started to tear up.

"You can lean down on one knee and run your finger across the name," said Wallace, 43. "It brings you closer."

The names etched in the tawny granite start with F.E. Anderson, who died in 1892 when spooked horses dragged a steamer apparatus over him, and continue to Thomas F. Dowling, who died of cancer this year. The 59 men and women whose deaths were the direct result of an emergency response, including Kacl and Hough, have a Maltese cross next to their names. By far, the most deaths were attributed to heart attacks or cancer.

David Barrett, who is working on a documentary film about the history of the Fire Department and is a senior advisor to the historical society, said the high number of deaths from those causes was no surprise.

Many of the firefighters of the past were not as physically fit as their counterparts today, and the exertion and adrenaline probably caused many of the heart attacks, he said. Inhalation of smoke and chemicals probably accounts for the cancer, he added.

"The main reason they died is because they were put in harm's way," Barrett said. "Whether they died of electrocution, smoke inhalation, crashed helicopters or a difficult situation, they were working to save lives or property."

In each case, he said, the department studied the cause of death in order to prevent something similar from happening again. The Gray Building fire was no exception.

Firefighters that day were using turret nozzles that pounded 3,000 gallons of water a minute at the flames and created a stream of water a foot deep running down Broadway, according to the front-page story in The Times. They were also using a new 65-foot-high truck-mounted apparatus called a water tower that pumped out more water than any other equipment they had at the time, Barrett said.

Then-Fire Chief Ralph J. Scott, known as an innovator, expressed concern that the new equipment had put too much water too fast on the flames, dousing the blaze but weakening the brick and wooden structure.

"As a result, that amount of equipment was not used again," Barrett said. "With the Gray Building fire, we learned that too much water can do as much damage as a fire can."

Since then, firefighters have been very careful to turn the hose on and off, especially when people are still inside the buildings, Barrett said.

"It's better to penetrate buildings, find the seed of the fire and use hand lines," he said.

A public ceremony for the memorial, with truck rides and tours of the museum, is planned for today at 11 a.m., at 1355 N. Cahuenga Blvd. in Hollywood.

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jia-rui.chong@latimes.com

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