This story takes place in San Francisco, California, "The City". I came from a family of 14 brothers and sisters. My father was born in 1894 in Volos, Greece and served in the United States Navy in WWI. My mother was born in 1900 in Russia. Four of my brothers served in WWII, others found work at an early age, while some were able to stay in school.
I was born shortly after WWII. My father was working hard for the family at the Greek Restaurant on Market Street. The rear doors of this establishment faced City Hall. At the time George Christopher was the Mayor (he followed Mayor Shelly) and the Fire Chief of the San Francisco Fire Department was William F. Murray.
Here's the story of this "City Kid". Two houses up from us lived old George Sullivan. George had been a SFFD fireman for many years. His job was driving the Battalion Chief in the Buggy. George was injured and retired after an Engine Company was responding to a Box and collided with the Chiefs car at an intersection. Well, one Saturday morning I was talking to Mr. Sullivan in his garage.....he was fixing windows that day.....and I noticed him pulling out a black jacket from a 50 gallon container. I asked him what kind of jacket he was holding. He told me it was his SFFD fireman coat. That was my initiation to our great profession as the stories poured from his memory like a river. Eventually one of my older brothers married his daughter.
George could tell how enraptured I was with his tales. He said a good friend of his Lt. Pallas was working at 43 Engine and he would show me around. One of my brothers lived two blocks from the Firehouse, so I was able to stop by and meet the members and to find that some of them knew my parents, some of my brothers, and Mr. Sullivan. This was my first day in the firehouse.
I got the whole tour of the old station and Engine, with the bells ringing Fire Department Codes on a small tape, and a peg board showing all of the Engines and Trucks. (This was a single house, so they only had Engines on the board.) It was so fascinating how the old system worked. It was fast on the bells, it tapped out a series, and the men were able to count them and know the location of the boxes.
After four years of visiting the firehouse, one of the old time firemen gave me a helmet and coat, I had learned a lot about the operations of the Fire Department by now and I rode the rig many times.
It was during this time, 1958, that my mother passed away. I was a young 12 year old, my brothers and sisters were married with families of their own and my father was 64 years old and still working hard, putting in many late nights. His time was at a premium, so there was little left for me. He also had well over 49 grandchildren by now. Big Family!
Here I was in this big house, learning how to cook for myself and trying to read some books or the city newspaper. I had three paper routes, the Chronicle, Progress, and News Call. My first job was at Woolworth's Department store in the Mission after school. But most of my time was spent with my "other family "at the firehouse.
I learned how to read from these old time firemen and did my homework many times at various firehouses. But my best course was the Fire Department Codes for apparatus , the boxes in the city, and knowing Morse code. I can remember tapping out the Fireboat at E32 which was "1-6" and many practice boxes. Station locations as well as knowing all of the Companies and different type of apparatus in the City was the knowledge I attained.
All of the officers and Big Chiefs helped me a lot in those days. I was on a first name basis with them. After 43 Engine, 32 Engine, 10 Engine and 7 Truck I spent many hours at old E19 at 3rd and 4th Street which later became E30. I witnessed my first drowning, a carpenter who fell off a boat near the Lefty O'Toole Bridge. 35 Engine, 8 Truck and the Fireboat were on scene. Crews pulled the man out with the hooks as he had been in the water for hours.
I learned about the different tools of the firemens trade. The firemen showed me how to use, maintain and check the various tools and equipment. And my mechanical skills were very good.
From Junior High School through High School ("The Great Balboa Bucks") most of my time was at the firehouses and at fires. It was at this time the older firemen understood my situation and in order for me to sleep at the station the senior firemen made sure that my homework was done and they were there to help at night with my school studies. I was able to sign up as a reserve Fireman and my auxiliary firemenship kept me very busy. I had the opportunity to work many greater alarm fires from 1964 to 1969. I was also allowed to do work at fires when other reserves were not.
Battalion Chief Chris Hayes was the boss and he showed me the ropes, so to speak. At one 5th alarm the smoke was so bad on the 4th floor that we took office chairs and vented out the windows on the upper floors. Big lines were then employed, and these lines were pulled up the stairs with appliances.
Ladders were big in the City and were used all the time. I can remember the 65 ft ladder being used on many greater alarms, but the 50 ft was the ladder most employed. The 65 ft ladder was eventually taken out of service because of its difficulty in raising and maneuvering (and many men were injured using this ladder). As you can tell firefighting was different in those days. Another example was that Scotts (SCBA's) were limited, so men would go into a building, hit the fire, and get out.
I was able to meet and talk with Chief William F. Murray many times. One of the first fires was a Church fire where many people were killed or injured, the Mayor was at the scene as I was helping Engine Co. 25.
It was not uncommon during the 1960's to go to 4 or 6 greater alarm fires in one week. I pulled hose and help raise ladders with firemen I knew working various companies. I also responded with Photo 1, Chet Born, many times. I was accepted in the firehouse.
The drill tower was fun. We would drill at the 7 story tower doing hose and appliance operations, low and high pressure hydrants, and using 92 pound gleason valves.
One 5th alarm in the City was during the evening hours, a six story brick warehouse south of Market St. That night I was helping Truck 1 pulling hose up the aerial to the roof and ventilation was under way. The fire was growing within the building and the Chief of the Department was pulling more alarms.
After two hours of battle, as the fire was rolling over our heads and aerial ladders pulling back from the building, the top floors and roof collapsed from the heat and flames. It was a close call for me and the twenty others on the roof that night.
Another fire was on 7th Street opposite Engine 27. A platting company was on fire, the wood frame structure was burning hot as led was pouring from the holding tanks as the large hose streams hit them. Hot tar was also melting from the roof.
I remember a greater alarm fire in a set of flats near the American Can company on 3rd Street. It was well involved in fire and I was helping companies pull large lines under severe smoke conditions. We were unable to see the firemen in from of us and within minutes the 3 story wall fell covering several truck company members. I was not injured, but I heard the wall come down and then helped some of the injured firemen.
Truck company 7 was a good house and I had some good friends there. One night they had a fire in the Mission where several members were severely burned and the Captain was killed. The Captain was Andy Benton. I have fond memories of this house and Captain Benton who was good to me as I was growing up.
A few day after the incident I visited the firemen in Ward 45 and I took some items to them to help out. I was upset to see the conditions of the men as many of them had second and third degree burns. During my time with SFFD I saw many firemen get injured and carried away in an ambulance.
One of my last big fires was at the Cliff House. It was 4 alarms and my face and ears were burned from the heat coming up the hill from the Sutro Baths.
After testing for the City in 1968, I also tested with other fire departments in the Bay Area, and was hired by the San Bruno. Eventually I was offered a job with the Woodside Fire Department in the 70's and have stayed here reaching 27 plus years in the fire service and currently the rank of Captain at 19 Engine.
During my career with the Woodside Fire Department I have had a second opportunity to work in the San Francisco Fire Department taking other members of my department up for 24 hour watches working Truck and Engine Companies. I have put in over 180 watches over the last several years working with great officers and men and women.
Many of my school mates eventually entered the San Francisco Fire Department, and years later after becoming a career firefighter myself, I have had the opportunity to work alongside these skilled firefighters. I have responded to many firefighting, rescue and false alarm calls in my association with the San Francisco Fire Department and have learned a lot from the Big City.
John is currently constructing a 1/5 scale triple combination pumper. This Mini Engine 7 will be available for parades and fire prevention.
Last updated 04 25 03