Los Angeles Fire Department
In Memory of
Fireman John H. Herbert
Truck Company 4
Appointed January 15, 1947
Died March 20, 1949
Suffocation in basement fire
Star Distributing & Manufacturing Company
345 East Third Street & San Pedro
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The Los Angeles Times, March 21, 1949
On March 23, 1949, 11:20 A.M., Engine Co. 3 responded to a basement fire at 345 East Third Street. This Company laid dry lines to the front of the building, forced the front doors and stood by.
On ascertaining that the fire was in the basement and that its location was not readily apparent because of the dense smoke, I notified Chief Tynan that I had been in the basement about two years ago. With his permission I donned a Gibbs Breathing Apparatus, entered the basement and determined the location of the fire. I could also hear an apparent flow of water from the ceiling and thought it was probably a sprinkler head separated by a partition; later it was found to be a broken water pipe.
basement a second time, accompanied by two Truckmen with a 1 1/2" hose line, I found
that the heat was somewhat greater and that the smoke, as before, blocked out all
visibility. Some difficulty was encountered in clearing the hose line around the base of
the stairs and rather than chance leading off at the wrong angle, I left the men at the
nozzle and checked for the correct position of the fire, which, when I found it again,
appeared to be behind a partial partition or some piled packing boxes. At this time
I slightly tripped over an object and fell into some sort of projection which in turn
knocked me down, and at this time the oxygen mask nose clips were knocked from my face,
the goggles disarranged and the mouthpiece partially pulled clear. I breathed some
smoke before I was able to readjust the equipment. The mucous from my nose and the
perspiration from my face prevented the nose clips properly gripping and from this point
on I was unable to safely work without holding the clips intact with one hand. The
heat was increasing in intensity. From this point until I emerged from the basement,
I frequently was forced to retch because of the smoke that was absorbed when the mask was
disarranged. In order to do this it was necessary to partially pull the mouthpiece
away and loosen the nose clips; each time, I believed a little more smoke and heat
I was taken to Georgia St. Receiving Hospital for treatment and put off duty. At the hospital I talked with Autofireman Joseph Kientz, Truck Co. 4, who stated that he believed that Fireman Roberts, Truck Co. 24, was the man in the basement with him. However, after talking with Captain Fred Newjahr, Chief Tynan and Chief Ferguson, I believe that the third man accompanying Auto fireman Kientz and myself to the basement was Fireman John Herbert, Truck Co. 4. Fireman Herbert's body was brought from the basement about ten minutes after I came out. I can not offer any definite explanation as to why this man did not make his way out.
49TH ANNUAL REPORT, JUNE 30, 1949
At ten o'clock Sunday on the morning of March 20th, the spacious new fire station at 800 North Main was unusually quiet. Church goers, in passing by, looked in on an apparatus floor which was deserted except for the waiting fire apparatus and the lone member on floor watch. A close observation could have detected a hum of activity behind one of the nearby doors. A Manual of Operations Drill was in progress.
Clearly and concisely, one member of a group which formed an attentive semi-circle inside the room was reading aloud from a Department manual: "Article 3, Section 43...A rope life line shall be secured around members before permitting them to descent into shafts, deep pits, etc. The following line signals will be used: one jerk signifies All is Well, two jerks...Advance, three...Take up, four...Help."
As the reader continued on, the collective thoughts of each member listening was varied. To some this was material for coming civil service exams, to others it was routine drill procedure which they knew they must know. Some of the newer men pictured emergency situations wherein such knowledge would be vital...older men remembered times when it was. The voice rolled on. No one there, with all their varied thoughts, could have pictured a scene which was to occur within just two short hours...a scene wherein at least three of them would be anxiously repeating those life line signals over and over to themselves while groping through a poison jammed atmosphere on East Third Street...a scene wherein one of them would soon lie dead...killed in line of duty...oblivious to all signals.
The reader finished, discussion was completed and the books closed. Another drill completed for the records. The air of concerned attention relaxed into a confusion of voices as the men began returning to their routine duties. A lot of the remarks were being directed toward an athletic young man whom Department rosters listed as John Henry Herbert. But to the men who were busy ribbing him about his brand new haircut, he was simply "Herbie", a guy with a grin a yard wide. He was using that grin right now, while returning those remarks about his hair with a few well placed ones of his own.
And when you were looking for a man to "Ride" during a hard fought game of handball, "Herb" was always just good enough and funny enough to draw the most attention. But he never seemed to get mad. He always had other ways of getting back at you and it usually ended up with laughs all around.
But Herbie had his serious side when it came to things important. When somebody had to be shown how to don a Gibbs or lash a bangor, the Captain's phrase was familiar: "Herbie, show'em how".
That passage in the Fire Department rating schedule which reads "He is the kind of a man who builds up the reputation of the Fire Department". It seemed to fit Herbie like an axe fits its scabbard.
Well, that was the Herbie they were kidding that morning, but it was John Henry Herbert that they pulled out of a smoke-choked basement two hours later. News reports stated that his buddies refused hospitalization for the forty-five minutes necessary to confirm his death. Forty-five minutes? They would have remained on that corner for forty-five days if they thought it might bring him back. But we're getting ahead of the story.
Let's go back again to that Sunday morning, when at 11:10 A.M. the new tapper began sounding its alarm and feeding out the long inches of alarm tape. As the crews dropped their work and ran for the rigs, they counted the bells 1...2...3...6! The Captain jerked the tape from its tapper and held it under the corresponding number on the running card. Third and San Pedro. "Truck only". As the second and third rounds of bells came in, the Engine Company Captain pushed the control buttons and sent the automatic doors sliding open and the outside signal-siren screaming its warning to traffic. With air horn blasting, the big aerial truck moved out onto Main, and a few seconds later its siren was clearing the way along Aliso Street and south on San Pedro. It was a relatively short run, and as the rig approached Third Street only a slight wisp of smoke was visible to the men. On arrival, the smoke indicated a fire somewhere inside the lower portion of the building and entry was made into the ground floor under the direction of Battalion Chief Tynan. With Engine Companies present and lines laid, the Truck crews forced open a door located approximately in the center of the building. There they found it...not fire, but smoke. Dark, dense and ugly, it boiled up out of a basement below. It was suicide to penetrate it without breathing equipment.
Captain Sawyer of Engine Co. 3 was one
of the first officers to arrive and he remembered having inspected the basement
when he had been assigned to Engine 5. He donned a Gibbs breathing apparatus and
went down to look for the fire. After a while he returned and reported to
Battalion Chief Tynan that he had located the fire. Captain Sawyer then
returned to the basement, this time assisted by two firemen and a hose line.
Down there on the stairs, the small group was progressing slowly. The surrounding atmosphere was a dark gray in the light of the Wheat Lamp. The powerful beam diffused almost immediately and visibility was limited to within a few inches of the men's goggles. Identification of each other even at the head of the stairs was difficult. Down here it was well near impossible. Kientz, for instance, did not know that the other man on his line was his friend Herbert until he compared notes with the others at the hospital that evening. All he knew now was that they were looking for fire and that the man who was somewhere in the mass of smoke ahead would tell them how and when and where to fight it. He also knew that it was uncomfortably hot.
As the men reached the foot of the stairway, they turned to the left and traveled forward about five or six steps. Captain Sawyer laid a restraining hand on the shoulder of the man nearest him, indicating that both men should stay where they were until he gave them further orders. They stopped and waited, listening in the silence, seeing absolutely nothing as the officer left them to relocate the fire. Presently they heard a slight scuffling and a muffled coughing as if someone was gagging. Shortly there after, a light dimly appeared. A muffled voice said "The fire is on the left".
Accordingly the men directed the nozzle, a Mystery type, to the left and opened it. The hiss and gush of the water streamed into that wall of smoke in front of them and disappeared. They moved the nozzle about in wide circles in an attempt to hit the fire and dissipate the hot smoke. To Auto-Fireman Kientz, the air about them seemed to grow lighter in color, the air hotter. If they were hitting the fire at all it was not evident from their position, and the heat was making that position increasingly unbearable. Upon an indication from his partner that they both should move, Kientz released his grip on his mouthpiece with his teeth enough to ask "Where...forward or back?" It was mutually agreed that they move back and one of the men began shutting down the nozzle.
To Captain Sawyer too, it seemed advisable to retreat to a point from which they could more safely await ventilation, and he moved to instruct the men to leave. He was particularly uncomfortable and weak. Twice, since he had left the foot of the stairs, he had lost his nose clip and mouthpiece. The first time was after he had left the men near the foot of the stairs in order to relocate the fire. He had stumbled in the darkness, falling heavily and disarranging the breathing equipment. He had taken a gulp of the putrid air and it made him sick. He'd had to retch. That was the sound that the men had heard. The second time was after he had told the men were the fire was located. Due to the dense smoke he was unaware that he was standing directly in front of the nozzle. The stream caught him in the face and knocked off his nose and mouth pieces. Again he had to retch and breathe, for a short moment, the foul hot air.
As the men on the hose line began backing up, Kientz could feel the other pair
of hands at work shutting off the nozzle. It was his last contact with his friend Herbert,
for when the line was dropped to the floor, both men became separated. Kientz turned to
the left and made his way toward where he thought the stairway should be. His supply of
air was getting more difficult to breathe. He moved searchingly forward...four, five...six
steps. He stopped. He was reaching around him into a wall of nothingness and felt as if
someone had turned him loose in a forty acre fog-covered field. He was getting lost. He
did an about face and started slowly back. A firm tug on his arm told him that his signal
cord was snagged. He tried to free it but couldn't. In order to move around to search for
the hose line he had to remove the line from his arm. Eventually he located the lost hose
line and felt along its length until he found the stairway. By this time his breathing was
labored. The air seemed unusually hot in his lungs. He reached back and opened the oxygen
by-pass valve...no relief. His respiratory center seemed as though partially paralyzed. He
was sincerely sorry that he had tried to talk back there on the hose line. Dazedly he
clambered up the stairway until he heard a voice say "get him out into the fresh
air". Then he knew that he was safe.
When it was suspicioned that Herbert was still in the basement, the fastest course of action was chosen in locating a nearby fireman who was already equipped with breathing apparatus. Fireman Richard Roberts was in the immediate vicinity and he promptly started down into the smoke, knowing full well that two other men equipped like himself had just been brought out in semi-conscious conditions. He groped his way down the stairway, feeling along Herbert's signal cord, which for all he knew, may have been abandoned as had the others.
At the point where the stair rail left the ceiling of the basement, he found that the cord had wedged in a crevice. He leaned over the rail and tugged at the lower portion of the cord. He found it taut and without response. As he continued down the stairway, Roberts logically reasoned that if Herbert was on the other end of that line, he must have traveled in a direction parallel to the stairway and toward its rear, thus causing the cord to slide back up the railing and lodge at the point where it met the ceiling. When Roberts reached the bottom of the stairway, he found water ankle deep on the floor. Assistant Chief Ferguson had ordered an engine company to hook into an outside auxiliary supply pipe...a move which proved most valuable in extinguishing the smoldering fire.
Smoke, however, was still of vital concern. Roberts could still not discern by sight what he was doing or where he was going. He turned to the right and felt in the direction of the stairway railing until his hand again contacted the signal cord. He moved his hand down along the cord and fond that it led to a position directly beneath the stairway. There his hand contacted metal...the metal cover of a Gibbs breathing bag. He had found Herbert.
He felt about for an arm or a leg by which to drag Herbert free. His searching hand contacted hair and a bare head. He then realized that Herbert had lost his helmet and consequently the attached face pieces. Losing no time, he grasped Herbert's turnout coat collar and tired to pull him free. The exertion caused a wave of dizziness to sweep over him and he knew that he would end up a casualty. He moved back up the stairway where he contacted two men with breathing equipment already on their way down.
Between the three men, they managed to move Herbert's body to the stairs. At that point, Captain Norbury, who was one of the two men who had come to aid Roberts, became dizzy and weak. He was wearing a Burrell type mask. He remembered nothing which occurred from that point until he found himself out in the fresh air.
As soon as Herbert's body reached the clear air outside the building, he
was given artificial respiration. Early arrival of Rescue Company 3
supplanted these efforts with a Resuscitator. Shortly thereafter, a
Receiving Hospital Physician arrived and injected a shot of adrenaline
directly into Herbert's heart. All treatment was to no avail. Herbert had
died back there in the basement from carbon monoxide poisoning. It wasn't
until his death was pronounced positively that the other stricken
firefighters allowed themselves to be taken to the Hospital for treatment.
Chief Engineer John Alderson arrived at the scene immediately after notification and promptly took the steps necessary to insure a thorough investigation. He personally checked the records of the breathing equipment and was satisfied that they were in order. He caused the apparatus which Herbert had worn to be placed in his private office under lock and key until it could be taken apart, bit by bit, for an exhaustive check. (This was later done and the apparatus was found to be in perfect condition.) He spent long hours questioning every man who could possibly contribute to a solution as to what happened to Herbert during those last few minutes in the basement.
What did happen down in that basement from the time that Kientz felt Herbert's hands on the nozzle until the point when Roberts found his body under the stairs can only be a matter of conjecture. The fact that he missed the stairway by but a few feet was indicated by his position beneath it and the short length of the signal cord. The cause of his death was his exposure to carbon monoxide and the reason was most probably the absence of a nose clip and mouth piece from his face. There was no confusion whatsoever in the firefighting operations. The equipment used was in the best of condition. The men in command were all veteran firefighters. The Truck Company crew was Grade-A. The man who used that particular piece of equipment was unusually well versed in its operation and was in the best of health at the time. Nevertheless the man died.
What it was that caused Herbert to lose a portion of his breathing equipment has been considered by a lot of thinking men. Some feel that he may have bumped his head and dislodged his face piece and helmet. Others reason that in attempting to back out from under the stairs, he caught the rear of his helmet on a projection and pulled it off with the attached face piece. Still others offer the thought that he had somehow loosened the straps before collapsing and the assembly simply fell off. And there are some who feel that Herbert became panicky and pulled the equipment from his face.
We'll make an issue out of that last one. Herbert wasn't the panicky kind. He had been through spots before that were a lot tighter than that basement. He had a determination and sense of logic which weren't that easily upset. But in order to understand what we mean, you will have to hear a little about his past life.
Herbert was born in Great Britain...Swansea, Wales, to be exact. Five years as a
paratrooper for Uncle Sam gave him plenty of opportunities to get his sights on a lot of
Krauts who were threatening his home town. He enlisted from his home at 4345 South
Budlong, in Los Angeles, as a member of the Reserves before the Nips hit Pearl Harbor. In
a short time he found himself in the middle of the fracas in Europe and was sporting an
Army Officer's insignia and a terrific pride in the fighting group which he commanded, a
part of the famed 101st Airborne Division. It was about that time that his parents joined
in with the thousands of other Dads and Moms who prayed fervently that their boys would
return. Their particular prayers were answered when five years later Johnny came marching
home with a full set of battle ribbons, a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star and his own slice of
a Presidential Unit Citation...not to mention a body full of shrapnel.
Herbert's wounds in the Normandie invasion put him in the hospital for two
years. But he still found time to get back home and convince a pretty little brown-eyed
girl named Kathleen that he was worth waiting for. And he also found time before his
discharge to stop in at San Francisco and pick up a Golden Gloves Championship in the
novice class...just like that.
Another indication that Herbert was different than average was his yearning for education. His locker at 4's was always stuffed with books from a course which he was taking on his days off, at Pepperdine College. Whenever the boys would question him about it, he would just look wise and tell them that he was taking a course in Psychology to try and figure them all out.
It was along about this time that he showed up one morning with a new box of cigars. The name this time was feminine...Constance Lee. He had to buy a bigger car now because he had a bigger family.
By now you must be getting the picture. Here was a man whose personality embraced the finer qualities of a leader, a fighter and a father...plus a lot of others which should be quite evident. It was all wrapped up in an all-around guy whom we just called "Herbie".
It was Wednesday, March 23, 1949. A host of uniformed firemen stood in silent respect near a bronze casket covered over with an American Flag. They were there, with other friends, to bid a final goodbye to a buddy. As the last words of prayer dropped from the Minister's lips and as rifles were raised toward the Heavens in a final salute to John Herbert, a brisk breeze whipped up the Colors into a military snap and stirred the flowers around him. At least one man in that group was thinking that this is the way Herbie would want it. A man's goodbye. A Hero's goodbye. "Killed in the line of duty."
Back there in France on that trestle...by all the laws of fate, he should have died that day. We like to think that the Lord spared him then, for just a few more years, for a purpose...so that he could enjoy a little more time with his parents...so that he could marry and leave behind him a couple of little counterparts of himself...so that we could be permitted to know him, and be always grateful that we did. Herbie would have wanted it that way.
The Firemen's Grapevine, April 1949
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The loss of a fireman at a fire at Third and San Pedro Streets on March 20, 1949 is covered in another story in this issue of the GRAPEVINE but the members of the department will be interested in the following reports covering the breathing apparatus used. The Chief Engineer arrived at the scene of the fire while operations were still in progress and impounded the breathing apparatus. The apparatus was then removed as was, to his office and placed under lock and key until the following day when complete tests as reported below were made on the equipment.
March 22, 1949
John H. Alderson,
APRIL, 1949 14 THE FIREMEN'S GRAPEVINE
After wearing the apparatus for 15minutes and checking all parts and finding none defective, I am of the firm opinion that the above mentioned apparatus was in good working condition at the time it was worn by Fireman Herbert, and his death could not be attributed to his being sent into the fire wearing defective equipment. To definitely point to the cause of the tragedy is rather hard, because it is difficult to reconstruct an exact situation as developed at the time of Fireman Herbert's death. However one thought as a grim reminder should be brought to the attention of all members and is that all breathing apparatus should be inspected, handled and treated as though each and every members life depend upon its being in good working condition at all times.
s/s WALTER BABECKY,
APRIL, 1949 14 THE FIREMEN'S GRAPEVINE
MINE SAFETY APPLIANCES CO.
Los Angeles Fire Department
In accordance with your request, the undersigned went to your Rescue Service and at 2 p.m.., March 21st in conjunction with your Captain Babecky made a thorough examination of the Gibbs Self Contained Breathing Apparatus which was worn by a member of your department who lost his life while wearing the above equipment.
I would say, without any reservations, that if this equipment was properly worn that it would do the job it was designed for.
Very truly yours,
MINE SAFETY APPLIANCES CO.
APRIL, 1949 15 THE FIREMEN'S GRAPEVINE
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