A Requiem: The Gray Building Fire

“The blaze was a stubborn, dangerous and heavy smoke fire–but every man faced this with the highest courage that men can attain. There was work to be done, and these brave men did that work without a look behind..” from the Firemen’s Grapevine. Nov. 15th 1939

The Gray Building Fire, Los Angeles, Ca. 1939, courtesy of LAFire.com.

On a November day in 1939, a fire broke out in a small novelty shop, located on the second floor of the Gray Building on the east end of Broadway in Los Angeles. Due to faulty reporting of the fire, the fire department responded to the wrong address. Shortly after 2 pm, with smoke pushing out of the building into the street, bystanders pull a box and firefighters responded to the correct address. A familiar story, one countless firefighters across the nation have experienced. Naturally, things being what they were in those days, the fire rapidly spread and quickly became a raging, working fire within the ordinary constructed building. Thick, dark smoke blanketed the street while aerial ladders rose to the hot work above.

L.A. Fire’s Truck Company No. 3 at the time of the Gray Building Fire, circa 1939. (Double Click to View) Photo courtesy of LAFire.com

Among the firemen arriving on scene, were two veteran firemen, FF Joseph W. Kacl of Truck Company 3 and Operator John C. “Red” Hough. Red was Deputy Chief Blake’s driver and a winner of L.A. Fire’s Medal of Valor and at the time of the fire, the only living member with that honor. Assigned from Engine Company 3, Hough had been detailed to Chief Rothermel for the day. A newspaper of the time told the story as the reporter looked up into the building and watched in amazement as the firemen stepped in the upper windows, belching black smoke. Aghast at their bravery, the reporter questioned their ability to enter such a dangerous “hell” and their very ability to breathe while doing so. Whether a fanciful writer or not, the reporter claimed to have watched Joe Kacl enter the building in this way, leaning into the work on the large handline, which he stated “Their hose kicked and slithered as they played it on scorching hot flames that seared their faces and their hands through dense, choking smoke.”

The Gray Building Fire goes from bad to worse as heavy printing presses crash down into the lower floors. Original “Grapevine” Cover, Nov. 15, 1939. Photo courtesy of LAFire.com

Any Jake that has worked a 2 1/2″ line inside a hot fire knows exactly what this is like, whether the writer could actually see it or not. The fire rapidly grew into a multiple alarm job, with some 60 plus firemen working it. Several different occupancies existed in the Gray. Sources report “heavy machinery” occupied much of the upper floors. At the time the reporter stood in the street watching the drama unfold, several employees had already been rescued and lives saved. The fire spread so rapidly, much of the initial response appears to have been occupied in rescue alone. Accounts differ, but Truck Company 3 was aloft at this point, assisting the engine men in getting the line into the structure. FF Kacl was on the pipe. Without any warning, the 2nd floor gave way and although the other two firemen with Joe Kacl were “flung” to safety by the lurching floor, FF Kacl was not. He was taken down with multiple floors to a wicked hot grave.

Admirably and true to form, our brethren of old struggled tenaciously, to reach FF Kacl. Accounts state that although debris continued to fall, they desperately attempted to reach him. Additional collapse of the upper floors made any further attempt impossible. Called out of the building by the Chief in command*, they were ordered to wait until the fire, now completely out of control, had been knocked down. Once that had been accomplished, according to our unknown journalist, the Chief himself entered the structure at the collapse level and surveyed the situation, debris still coming down. He gave a “nod” and the firemen waiting in the street rushed in to hunt for Truck Co. 3′s lost man. They did not heed the falling bricks and coping stones, timbers and flames, but went right to work, digging to find Kacl.

This photo, taken within the collapse, shows the rescue attempt as the body of Kacl is located (indicated by the arrow). Photo courtesy of LAFire.com.

But the fire was not done with the city’s bravest, and the records and photography of the time show that even though the rescuers had found and uncovered Kacl’s body, a sudden secondary collapse reburied it among cascading debris, machinery and flame. Several firemen were injured at this point and among them, John “Red” Hough. Taking a joist to the helmet, he staggered from the structure to gather his bearings, shook it off, then returned to the work. FF Kacl’s body was not recovered until the early hours of the following day. Following the fire, Red Hough struggled with several periods of paralysis, usually while lying in bed at the firehouse or at home. Although he continued to work through November, he finally took time off to recover. Several days rest seemed to help, but a little over a month after the fire, Red collapsed to the floor right in front of the doctor who was beginning to suspect he had a brain hemorrhage. In spite of all efforts, FF Hough passed away around 7 pm, on December 11th, 1939. He gave the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of a fallen brother.4

This photo, taken at the moment of the collapse which reburied FF Kacl, shows the rescuers reacting to the sound of impending disaster. One of the firemen in the photo is “Red” Hough, who within split seconds would be struck in the helmet by a large joist. Photo courtesy of LAFire.com.

In the article by the unknown reporter, he states dramatically, “ I was there, standing on Broadway as your firemen rushed up a none-too-safe-appearing fire escape and without so much as a look back to their chief down on the ground, stepped into the inferno with hose lines and axes. Stepped off of the fire escape, stepped off of ladders into a raging inferno of seeming oblivion. How they lived–how they even breathed–was a mystery and will continue to be a mystery to this person who likes his air clear and without even a trace of morning fog. And they climbed those ladders and fire escapes as death-dealing bricks, sharp-edged pieces of cornice and window sills sprayed down around them like a hail storm of death. But your firemen had a job to do –a job they had been trained for –a job that they knew might bring death, injury, suffocation.”3

It is often thought that in the old fire service, they threw lives away unnecessarily. And I suppose sometimes they did. But that is not my purpose here. Our efforts to increase safety and protect the lives of our members have steadily improved. Yet still we die. I don’t think we’ll stop that for some time yet. Each time one of us goes down, it injures countless others who are affected; the wife or husband, children, brothers and sisters at the firehouse. And each time this occurs it takes a toll, leaves a scare that is hard to recover from. We have begun to learn that for some, the weight is too great. I think of the Deutsch Bank Fire and the burden there that could be carried no longer. Add to that the losses that we cannot possibly stop or defy; losing your loved ones to cancer, to car accidents,divorce and of course …war. The toll is heavy indeed. What can be done? The Good Book makes no apology for suffering.

We must still enter the burning, smoke filled maw. But we as officers, dedicated to the lives of the men and women we lead can continue to strive for professionalism, for understanding fire behavior and why buildings come down, fatigue and strain, following the SOP’s, improving our skills as tacticians, as teachers of the art of firemanship, as listeners, as communicators, seeking out information, constantly keeping ourselves ready, constantly being battle ready, studying our failures, knowing our people and setting the pace. Be the example, the public servant at his best.

LEAD…

So, there are a few reasons why I chose to put this story before you, reader. One, I suppose is the love of the job and all things historical and traditional. What leatherhead doesn’t enjoy a real intense story from back in the day, especially when there’s a cup of good Joe to be had. But I’m also telling you about FF’s Kacl and Hough, because I found some comfort in their story, something to admire, to set my sights on.  I write this as a requiem, a tribute to all those firemen of old, and the firefighters of today who continue to fall. I am pouring the shot from the glass in remembrance of their service. But even more so, because I must find a way to get past my own heavy heart.  I write this to pay tribute to all my friends, brothers and sisters who have lost someone off their company, from their house, their department, their training mentor, their friend. The fireman who came home to find his wife dead, asleep in her bed, the one who lost his wife and child in an accident, the loved ones who fought the good fight, yet still died of cancer and all those who still are in the thick of it, the brother or sister, son or daughter who couldn’t hold on to life any longer and took it with their own hands. We stand there helpless, trained to save, yet unable to save those who have admired us, lived with us, worked with us, laughed with us, prayed with us, believed in us. And in some convoluted way, we feel as though we failed them. This is written because my heart is heavy for those firemen in my life who come to work every day bearing such burdens.

To Captain Larry Schneider, whose love for the job, his department and its long history led him to meticulously record these stories at LAFire.com, for us to read and grasp inspiration. And to John, whom I know has seen so much loss, I just don’t know how he finds the strength to come back each day. But he does, and with a good sense of humor, a smile, and dedication to devote to yet another day. I draw strength from that brother, he walks tall.

So raise a glass lads, to Joe and Red, who gave their lives serving in this glorious profession. RFB

For more on the Gray Building Fire click on the link below:

http://lafire.com/lastalarm_file/1939-1211_Hough_Kacl/Kacl-Hough.htm

Unknown writer and publication, November 7th, 1939. Los Angeles Fire Department Historical Archive. Web. 22 May 2013.  lafire.com. http://lafire.com/lastalarm_file/1939-1211_Hough_Kacl/Kacl-Hough.htm

Bass, George. Box 15 Club, Los Angeles. November 1989. Los Angeles Fire Department Historical Archive. Web. 22 May 2013. lafire.com. http://lafire.com/famous_fires/1939-1106_GrayBuildingFire/110639_GrayBuildingFire.htm

Unknown writer and publication, November 7th, 1939. Los Angeles Fire Department Historical Archive. Web. 22 May 2013.  lafire.com. http://lafire.com/lastalarm_file/1939-1211_Hough_Kacl/Kacl-Hough.htm

4Goss, Bill. “In Memory of Fireman John C. “Red” Hough”. The Firemen’s Grapevine. March 1945.  Los Angeles Fire Department Historical Archive. Web. 22 May 2013.  lafire.com. http://lafire.com/lastalarm_file/1939-1211_Hough_Kacl/1945-0300gv_Hough.htm

2 Comments

  • Dan Grimes says:

    As usual…well done brother, and a timely read for me. Thank you for capturing so eloquently the heavy heart of the survivors, and their often quiet and well buried pain.

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