Ross Valley Fire News
Hometown Heroes: The Untold Story of Marin's Fire Service Casualties
By Nels Johnson
Marin Independent Journal
It is a horror unparalleled in the history of the fire service in Marin County.
As a noontime crowd gathered to watch the St. Raphael's Mission parade in San Rafael on May 21, 1950, flames erupted from Mar Vista Motors at 812 Fourth St. A spark from a paint sander ignited a pool of solvent, triggering what Fire Commissioner Walter Castro called a "roaring hell."
Firefighters Aubrey E. "Jack" Miller, 34, and William "Sonny" Bottini Jr., 24, entered the blazing building and were working a hose line when the roof of the garage collapsed. Miller was killed instantly as a beam fell. Bottini, saying "I think I've had it" as he was pulled from the debris, died 12 hours later at Cottage Hospital.
While employees of all stripes risk injury while on the job, an Independent Journal review indicates there is no public profession in Marin County more dangerous than the fire service. It's an untold and unheralded story that involves at least 15 on-duty fatalities over the years. The number remains uncertain because records are unclear, inconsistent and incomplete, with lists posted by firefighter associations including heart attacks, cancer and related maladies that take an off-duty toll. The California Firefighters' Memorial in Sacramento also includes names of 15 Marin firefighters, but five or six of those were off-duty deaths deemed job-related by worker compensation programs.
Plaques at firehouses, charity fundraisers and scholarships honor some, but not all. There is no tribute or county memorial saluting Marin's fallen firefighters as a group. Bob Briare, president of Marin Professional Firefighters 1775, said Marin's small fire agencies "take care of their own" and do not seek glory in the first place. "It's kind of hard to get everybody together on a memorial," he added.
Miller and Bottini are among casualties listed in San Rafael, where officials note other on-duty deaths including firefighters Louis H. Hewelcke, who died in 1937 fighting a grass fire, and David A. Coutts, who suffered a heart attack at the downtown firehouse in 1958.
"Losing one of our own is something that is always with you," San Rafael fire Chief Chris Gray said. "As with a family member, the loss is something we never forget."
No one has forgotten Novato firefighter Steven Rucker, who died 10 years ago on Oct. 29, 2003 after getting overrun by the Cedar Fire while working with a wildland fire crew protecting homes in San Diego County. Novato firefighters hold an annual golf tournament benefiting the Novato Fire Foundation, a tribute that has raised more than $100,000 in his memory for a variety of fire programs. The 10th annual Steven Rucker Memorial Golf Tournament will be at Stone Tree Golf Club on Sept. 9, noted fire Capt. Jeff Whittet.
Although those who died decades earlier are not as fresh in memory, veterans still talk about the death of 23-year-old Alto firefighter Frank Kinsler in July 1961 in San Rafael. Kinsler, responding to a fire started by two Santa Venetia boys in a Northwestern Pacific Railroad tunnel under Lincoln Avenue, was crushed when his fire truck plunged 50 feet into the chasm during a cave-in. It took nearly two days to extract his body from tons of concrete and dirt that covered the truck and swallowed part of an apartment building when the roof of the burning tunnel collapsed.
Kinsler, who joined the Alto Richardson Bay Department, now part of the Southern Marin Fire Protection District, six months earlier, was trying to move the truck to safer ground that night. He was found in the cab of the truck with part of an oxygen mask on his face.
In Sleepy Hollow, a memorial bench near the Butterfield Road firehouse honors San Anselmo fire Capt. Robert A. "Bert" Meagor, who died nearby while fighting a brush fire in June 1936. The charred body of the 36-year-old was found burned beyond recognition in a ditch a half hour after he vanished in a thick wall of smoke while deploying a hose line. The San Rafael Independent, in an emotional tribute hailing him as a hero, reported he was "the first firefighter in the history of Marin County to become a sacrifice on the altar of duty," an assertion that overlooked the death of a county fire warden four years earlier. Pallbearers at an epic funeral included San Anselmo fire Chief Nelo Marcucci and Mayor William D. Fusselman.
Capt. Meagor was the great uncle of Ross Valley fire Chief Roger Meagor, who noted that the death of his grandfather's brother was the tragedy of the era 77 years ago.
"We do everything we can to prevent that from occurring," Chief Meagor said. "But being in the fire service, we understand the risk," he added. "It's what we do."
No less wrenching
On-duty deaths lacking firefighting drama are no less wrenching, including those caused by on the job heart attacks, an occupational hazard blamed for 41 of the 83 on-duty firefighter fatalities across the nation last year.
When Jeff Powers, deputy chief of the Southern Marin Fire Protection District, collapsed at the firehouse following a heart attack in June 2008, firefighters who tried to save his life wept as they sat on the curb at Marin General Hospital. Nearly 1,000 mourners spilled out of St. Isabella's Church in San Rafael at Powers' funeral Mass. He was 44.
Other on-duty deaths over the years range from a Tamalpais fire warden who was mistaken for a wildcat by a teen hunter, to a Larkspur volunteer killed in a fire truck wreck and a fire chief who collapsed en route to a blazing mansion.
Interviews with more than two dozen firehouse veterans, a review of national, state and local fire association lists, as well as old Independent Journal and related news reports, indicate that others among Marin's on-duty firefighter casualties include:
• Tamalpais Fire Warden Clarence C. Grimm was shot to death by a teenager while on patrol looking for an illegal campfire near Woodacre in October 1932. A 15-year-old said he thought the warden was a "wildcat" or mountain lion. The county fire department dedicated the Throckmorton Ridge Fire Station in Grimm's memory in 2007.
• Marin County Fire Chief Sam Mazza died in 1948 after suffering a heart attack while fighting a grass fire near Nicasio.
• Marinwood volunteer Thomas James Sutton Jr. put on his fire gear and headed outside following a fire call in September 1962, but collapsed before he got to his car, suffering from a heart attack. He was 50.
• Novato fire Chief George J. Cavallero died of a heart attack on his 51st birthday in 1969 while en route to an arson fire at the old Burdell mansion, now Olompali State Park. A plaque outside the Novato fire district's administrative building honors Cavallero as well as Rucker.
• Assistant Hamilton Air Force Base Fire Chief Samuel J. Blumenberg, 45, of Fairfax and a base engineer were last seen alive Feb. 14, 1970 when they took a rescue vessel for a shakedown cruise on San Pablo Bay after overhauling the engine. The boat was found empty and adrift near the Sisters Island, with all gear in place and no sign of an accident. Blumenberg's body was found two weeks later near Angel Island.
• Larkspur volunteer Jim Niven, owner of the old Niven Nursery and head of the city's chamber of commerce, died en route to a convalescent home laundry room fire in January 1978 when the 17-ton open cab fire truck he was riding in overturned on Magnolia Avenue. A plaque and an annual scholarship program honors the 43-year-old Niven.
• Paramedic and Marinwood volunteer Capt. Robert Paoli died of a heart attack in November 2006 while transporting a patient. He was 31.
Other lives on the line
Firefighters are not the only public employees who put their lives on the line. In April 1958, 37-year-old Fairfax streets crewman Richard Chase toppled from a catwalk while on storm duty and drowned in surging Manor Creek. Golden Gate Bridge painter Lee R. Patrick of San Anselmo fell to his death in 1967 when a scaffold gave way and his safety line snapped. U.S. park ranger Kenneth C. Patrick was shot to death in August 1973 by deer poachers at Point Reyes National Seashore.
The roster of those who become victims of their jobs after they retire extends beyond firefighters who suffer cancer, stroke or heart attack. William Weissich, a former Marin district attorney, was murdered in November 1986 by a vengeful arsonist who returned to Marin after his parole and shot the ex-prosecutor to death in his San Rafael law office.
A lasting heartbreak
While the special perils of fire service duty are striking, "It's not something that consumes you each time the bell goes off," San Rafael's Chief Gray said. "Rather, the hope of serving others by preventing the loss of life, further injury or stopping a small fire from turning into a conflagration" is what comes to mind, he said.
Gray drives by the building that replaced Mar Vista Motors in San Rafael nearly every day, now home to a pizzeria, and thinks about Jack Miller and Sonny Bottini.
"The families they left behind. Miller left a widow and four kids," the chief said. "It's a gaping hole you can never fill."
Bottini's niece, Carol Brandt of San Rafael, is among those who know about the heartbreak all too well.
"It was devastating to the family," said Brandt, who serves as a volunteer at the San Rafael Fire Department's administrative office, the downtown firehouse at C Street and Fifth Avenue where her uncle was stationed.
"He was my mom's only brother and he died before I was born," Brandt said. "It is very special for me to be a volunteer here at Station 51."
Among the mementos Brandt has is a touching letter of condolence sent to her mother by San Rafael City Attorney Harold Haley, who later became a judge — and was slain two decades later in the 1970 courthouse shootout at Marin County Civic Center.
From the Marin Independent Journal August 8/31/2013