Los Angeles Fire Department
Historical Archive

In Memory of
Fireman Ercil G. Morse
Truck Company No. 5
April 7, 1924

* * * * * * * * * *

Called to a second alarm at 1320 South Main Street Truck 5 was ordered to the roof to start ventilation of the three-story commercial building.  Tillerman Ercil Morse stepped on a flush mounted glass skylight and fell three floors.  He died the following day of head injuries.

Ercil Morse

By Bob Patterson  

F or the second time within the short period of two years, death roared out of the big doors of Engine 5s with his cold hand on a tillerman's shoulder. This time he had picked a real specimen of fire department personnel, six-foot-four Ercil Morse, a man known affectionately as "The Giant" by his many brother fire fighters.

  Morse, the brother of present appointed Chief "Tiny" Morse, was assigned to Truck 5 from the first day he entered the job. From then on he managed to occupy a reserved spot in the hearts of his companions due to the eternal boyish grin that topped his towering frame. The enjoyment he experienced in his association with fellow firemen was exceeded only by his love of a rough and friendly scuffle. His size made him hard to get hold of but easy to upset, thus putting him in the constant role of challenger and loser to the point of causing a continual uproar at the daily wrestling program he would laughingly provide. He had so welded his personality to the activities of the men and officer that he soon became a "character" within the battalion, a man any commanding officer would hate to transfer or otherwise lose. Morse's work was close in comparison to that of some of the older, more experienced men, both because of the apparent ease with which his bulk enabled him to handle equipment and the fact that he had applied himself to the study of fire fighting methods with commendable faithfulness. He had the distinction of being the youngest and biggest man on the force. What final goal these characteristics might have allowed him to achieve if he had been allowed the full quota of opportunity can only be surmised.

  For some time previous to his last run, Morse had been practicing the duties
of tillerman by piloting the ladder-hung trailer back from the scene of alarms. The exacting demands of the wheel's operation had been mastered by the young fireman to such a point that it was now being considered a position of his own. Thus it became his privilege to occupy the conspicuous post of tillerman when the time came for department photographs to be taken of Engine and Truck 5. The time was duly set, and upon its arrival the crew turned out in their afternoon blues, shoes and badges polished to high lustre, and stepped into position for their picture. The engine company had just completed their take and Morse was climbing into the tiller seat in preparation to maneuver the truck into an outside position when the high pitched resonance of fire gongs sounded throughout quarters. Morse heard the two leading clangs of a second alarm and tensed in his seat. This was an initiation he didn't particularly go for. It was bad enough to undergo the tension of answering your first alarm as tillerman without making it a "second." He watched the anxious crew around the printer case as the little perforated tape jerked out its message, his heart pacing the rhythmic clangs of the alarm. Suddenly the captain held up a restraining hand and Ercil saw his lips purse the word "Thirty's." The heave of relief left his lungs in a rush, and just as quick he was sorry. That initial responsibility had to be met some time, and why not to the tune of a blazing two-bagger as to that of any other? Oh well, next time. He twisted the wheels until the ladder-beams paralleled the side of the station and the auto fireman cut the motor. Lieutenant Rainey lined up his camera, looked up and down the attentive line, and shot the last picture Morse was destined to have taken. As if touched off by the click of the camera's shutter, a long tremulous ring suddenly sounded out from the alarm panel. The crew turned as a unit to grab up their turnout coats and axes as the captain ran for the fire-phone. Morse didn't move from his seat for he knew this was to be another chance at an opportunity he'd just missed.

Only a few minutes after this picture was taken death had beckoned to the young man shown in the tillerseat. (Truck 5).

"We're going in, men." Cap Carpenter headed for his place on the rig as he gave the location, "1320 South Main. We're coverin' for 30s--they've broken a Bendix."

  Auto-fireman Bulkley had a straight shot from the outside position in which the apparatus stood, and lost no time in getting under way. Morse tracked neatly behind on the turn into Fourth and his pal, Burk, grinned an approval as he buckled on an axe. It was an exceptionally long run and the big youngster hunched over the wheel in a determined attempt to give all his attention to the responsible job he was undertaking. The tiller wheel appeared a toy in the capableness of his huge hands even though they showed a little whiteness at the knuckles.

  From Fourth and Los Angeles, the crew could see the red sheets of flame flashing against the underside of wildly gyrating smoke masses and knew that they'd hit a good one. It had started in quiet concealment, swelled within the closed building, and burst forth in full fury at their point of arrival. Morse ducked his head against a swirl of hot cinders as the myriad of scorched odors suddenly swept over his exposed position. The street was wet and hot, with hundreds of white pyres where embers were hitting the water. Firemen were leaping the interlocking hose-lines with ladders, lines, and axes carried high as they disappeared through the smoke-draped doorways and up fire escapes. One group, backed by a loaded line, was attempting entrance at the second floor fire escape entrance but were almost entirely cut from view due to the smoke. Suddenly, vivid flame engulfed the escape from the treacherous belly of a back-flash, blasted every window in the structure and hurled the firemen to the pavement below. Ambulances were summoned and had begun their screaming journey when Truck 5 found its position at the rear of the burning structure and Morse leaped from his seat to duty. Hard on the heels of Captain Carpenter, he swung his long body up the ladder rungs to the roof of the adjoining building. Auto-fireman Bulkley vaulted the firewall to follow Morse to the forward part of the building and witnessed him cut a right angle course to avoid the hardly distinguishable roof-level skylights. Following at a distance of approximately fifteen feet, Bulkley had gained a position opposite a ladder set against the burning structure when he heard an order from his captain.

  "Remove the ladder and bring it to the other window, boys." Cap's voice was partly overlapped by the roar of fire and Bulkley glanced up to see if Morse had heard it. Outlined against the smoke, the lad was seen to turn in response. Satisfied, the auto-fireman reached for the ladder. Above the howling sweep of flames he heard a nearby crunch of collapsing glass, followed by a muffled thud of impact. He snapped his head around toward Morse. The roof was bare.

  The firemen dropped their equipment and ran to the spot. A thin veil of black smoke drifted over a gaping hole in the skylight. Far below lay the body of young Morse, his big frame crumpled on the concrete floor.

  The men raced down the ladders to the aid of their injured companion and directed the already present ambulance attendants to the spot. The youth was carefully placed on a stretcher and rushed to the receiving hospital. There he died at 5:25 a.m., April 7, fourteen hours after the fatal plunge, mercifully escaping the undeniable agony of consciousness.

  The cause of death was pronounced a basal skull fracture. Whether Morse had struck the back of his head on a girder while falling, or when he contacted the concrete below, is a question raised by his injury. He is said to have controlled his body and lit finally on his feet, for the handle of the axe struck the floor and drove his head into the left side of the abdomen, an occurrence that might have killed him instantly had he been a man of average height.

  The genuine loss to the department and personnel of one yet so young, strong, and full of life can be instantly realized by any person appreciating the atmosphere of excellent morale about such a man. The sorrow of the Los Angeles Fire Department is effectively expressed by a letter from Chief Engineer Scott to Mrs. Morse, the youth's mother, which we have copied below:

Mrs. M. E. Morse,
541 Fairmont Avenue,
Glendale, Calif.

Dear Madam:

  Personally and on behalf of the members of the Los Angeles Fire Department, for whom I have the honor to be spokesman, permit me to express to you and members of your family at this time, our deep concern and heartfelt sympathy in your recent bereavement.

  There are times when words fail to convey the depths of brotherly feeling, when in this dangerous service of ours some man is called upon to pay the extreme penalty which the work exacts. There is not a man in the department whose heart does not go out in sympathy to those who are left behind, for no one of us knows that the next alarm of fire may not be the last call for him.

  The departed boy was giving splendid service and was well loved by all his associates. Not a blot appears upon his record in this trying service. Many men have boasted of less than this.


R.J. Scott,
Chief Engineer.




  On their way from Court and Olive streets, where the services for the young fireman were held, the impressive procession of grief-stricken relatives, friends and brother fire-fighters were destined to pass the open doors of Engine 16, in front of which the entire personnel of that company stood in reverent attention. As the car bearing the body of the youth came to a position opposite the station, a long ring burst forth from the alarm panel. It supplied a fitting salute from the hand of God himself, it would seem, to the vivid and eternal memory of Ercil Morse.

Through a skylight on this building (at 1320 S. Main St.) Ercil Morse plunged to his death.





The Firemen's Grape Vine, May 1944

Copyright 1999 All Rights Reserved.