Tahoe Apartments Fire — 1814 Central Avenue Wed., Feb. 7, 1973, 8:13 p.m.
I was at home on Marina Drive on the living room floor playing with my family and watching television. For some reason, though I don’t remember why, my wife said that we looked at each other as if we heard an unusual sound and, within five minutes, a call came in from Central Fire. Dispatch was recalling me to work, “The middle of town is burning.”
“What’s the address?” I asked.
“Go outside and look; you’ll see where to go.”
I didn’t know at the time, but I soon would. A Navy jet fighter had fallen from 30,000 feet. Dispatch was right. As I looked from my front door about three miles west, the whole sky was lit up. Driving down Lincoln, I couldn’t get past Oak Street because of the traffic already out to see this extravaganza. I turned west on Pacific and was able to get to Lafayette, where I left my car and hoofed it to the scene. At the time I didn’t know what had happened except that a four-story apartment building was fully involved, with a Victorian to the east and two apartment buildings to the south and west starting to burn.
Approaching the front, Engine One was set up with a long lay, 2-1⁄2-inch supply line, not nearly enough water to equip the three hoses going to Truck 1 with three hand-held lines. Engine One was at the point of pulling a vacuum on the main hydrant and needed another supply. It was about as effective as a fire extinguisher.
Truck One was setting up as a water tower but only had one 2-1⁄2-inch supply. The radios in the background were screaming for water. All of our rigs were committed around the perimeter, as the call had gone out for mutual aid. I told Marv that I would get him another supply. Reporting to the chief, he told me to grab any incoming mutual aid engine and to lay a line across town. I flagged an Oakland hose wagon and we laid cross-town to Lincoln Avenue on another water grid. At the time, Oakland had three-inch hose and we had 2-1⁄2 inch. These were incompatible and Oakland didn’t carry adapters. As we emptied the last of the hose at the hydrant, a Coast Guard rig was passing by. They had adapters and were able to hook up and pump to Engine One.
The screams were long silent now as we continued our battle. No other tactic at this point, except to surround and drown.
Naval Air Station crash trucks had arrived and were setting up foam. From there, I went to help the captain setting up 2-1⁄2-inch hose lines and quick-training volunteers to hold them. I drug a supply line from another engine to the corner of Central and Union. As I was hooking up, the northeast corner of the building collapsed. I could feel the intense heat washing over me. I wanted to run but adrenalin helped me fight the heat as I succeeded in turning on the water. My pants were steaming as I ran for shelter a half-block away. Looking back, most of the block was on fire. People had come out of the woodwork and firefighters were assigning civilians to hold nozzles so that they could put more lines into play. Traffic was hindering the movement of apparatus. It was orchestrated chaos. The screams were long silent now as we continued our battle. No other tactic at this point, except to surround and drown.
3:00 a.m. – The building had collapsed in on itself. Smoke and steam were rising hundreds of feet into the air. In the floodlights what was left of the four-story building was now reduced to 12 feet of collapsed stucco and rebar. Most of the wood had been consumed. I found myself sitting on a pile of stucco hidden in the steam with my 2-1⁄2-inch hose flooding the hot spots below. The thought came to mind that, somewhere below are people, people that just six hours earlier were living life as usual. But suddenly they’re gone. I hoped they had made peace with God (Romans 10:9, 10).
A week later, we were still there investigating, excavating and wondering why. It took a crane digging below ground level to find signs of the plane. Its engine had gone through a four-story building, a concrete slab, and 15 feet into the earth. The only remains found of the pilot were some wrist bone and the cuff of his flight jacket. There was very little sign of the eleven people unaccounted for. Four months after the fire, we were still being greeted by people on the street, with thanks. They made us feel like heroes.
Another Perspective – Firefighter Bud Steers’ Account as Engineer on Engine Two
It was a Navy A-7E Corsair from Lemoore Naval Air Station, piloted by Lieutenant Robert Lee Ward, an experienced, college educated, and former instructor pilot.
It seems that the plane dove from 30,000 feet at a very steep angle and crashed at speed nearing Mach-1. These are some of my recollections as follows:
“Attention all Stations! There has been an airplane crash in the vicinity of Encinal & Grand Street. All companies respond.”
I was on duty at Alameda Fire Department Station Two, seated in the office at the front of the building and across the hall from the large main operations room. It was after the evening meal at about 8:00 p.m. and time for study or other personal things. I read the daily fire log for 7 February 1973, which is a normal and usual thing, when I heard a loud screeching sound followed by a boom and a shaking/shudder, like a mild earthquake. I had no idea what had happened, but I knew it was something big that would probably need a response by Engine Two. I opened the door on the other side of the office leading to the apparatus room, hit the door- open button, put on my turnout jacket and, with helmet in hand, I mounted Engine Two and started the engine.
Somewhere in this process I heard the report from Central, “Attention all stations! There has been an airplane crash in the vicinity of Encinal & Grand. All companies respond.”
This was a very unusual and seldom heard dispatch from Central. I am ready to go and with the echo of the strange dispatch in my ears, Lieutenant Kennon swung into his seat saying, “Let’s roll!”
Pulling out through the apparatus door, as we departed, we could see the fire reaching high into the sky probably 100 feet or more. We chose to take Central Avenue which put us exactly in front of the Tahoe Apartments. Engine One was already on scene and had “laid in” (a fire department term for hose evolution). It looked like a war zone with glass and debris everywhere, and the building totally involved, power & phone lines drooping to the sidewalk. Crowds of very excited citizens had come to observe this spectacular happening. We had planned to “lay out” to the next hydrant but, when Lieutenant Kennon made his first pull of hose off the tailboard, the anxious citizens pulled all 2,000 feet of our 2-1/2-inch hose onto the ground in what looked like one giant mass of spaghetti.
During the initial happenings, I noticed a husky young man with a very popular, appropriately labeled, SUPERMAN T-shirt climb a rain downspout pipe and rescue a young woman and her small dog from the first-floor window on the west side. With all our 2-1/2-inch hose laying in a pile on the street, I told Lieutenant Kennon that I was going to find a hydrant and he said okay. So, I ended up one street south on Alameda Avenue. I had found a wonderful high-volume, green top hydrant on the back side of the fire scene and adjacent to an alley that had some sort of access to the apartments.
I busied myself hooking up the steamer (large diameter hose) to the hydrant and had no more then gotten that done, when a young man excitedly came to me saying, “I am a Redding volunteer fireman. How can I help?”
I asked him to go to Central Avenue on the other side of the fire and gather up as much 2-1/2-inch hose with a yellow ID band around the fittings. It was just a short while later that he returned with two or three other young men and all my hose loaded on the hood and roof of his Rambler American.
This Redding volunteer fireman, with aid from his recruited friends, hooked together three 2-1/2-inch lines to reach the fire and, with instructions from me, attached nozzles. I have no way of knowing who manned those lines. My crew then laid hose bundles and a live line to the fire scene and, of course, I am busy with instructing my crew and happily charging each line. I still have two outlets unused when I see an Oakland fire engine laying two of their 2-3/4-inch lines toward me down the alley. With crowds of animated citizens looking on, Hallelujah, I have two Oakland adaptors and attach and charge those lines also. I can only suppose that they were fitted with Oakland fire department nozzles. I would really love to have a photo of Engine Two in this pumping condition. All the many hours of training did pay off as our team held together in a time of great crisis.
David LeMoine is retired from the Alameda Fire Department and now lives in Eagle, ID. These stories are excerpted from his book, I Could Have Died a Thousand Deaths, published by Big Boots Publishing of Redding, CA.