Fire Doesn’t Deter Paralyzed Veteran

Times Staff Writer

As it does for other fire victims, the American Red Cross found Richard Pfost temporary housing after an apartment blaze destroyed all his possessions.

The Monday fire left Pfost, who is paralyzed, with only the clothes he was wearing, a blue backpack strapped to his motorized wheelchair--and some serious problems.

Without the special equipment that helped him get about, Pfost and a paid helper had to call firefighters Tuesday morning to help him rise from his bed in a motel. By Tuesday afternoon, with nowhere else to turn, he was at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Long Beach.

Served in Vietnam

“I’m not sick. All I need is a place to live,” said Pfost, 48, a veteran with 10 years service in the U.S. Army, including Vietnam duty.

Pfost, who is classified as an incomplete quadriplegic because he has some use of his hands, said that he doesn’t want to wait six to eight weeks for workers to rebuild his Irvine apartment. By the end of the week, he wants to be back to classes at Irvine Valley College, where he goes daily in two-mile wheelchair jaunts


“I told my counselor I’d be back to school this week--one way or another,” Pfost said as his helper lifted a fork of cottage cheese to his mouth. “My chair doesn’t keep me from doing what I want to do.”

At Irvine Valley College, news of Pfost’s misfortune “spread like wildfire,” Prof. Joyce Arntson said. In his computer class, classmates on Tuesday raised a few dollars and others began exploring ways to help him, Arntson said. The husky, bearded Pfost is a familiar sight to students and faculty alike as he maneuvers his wheelchair around the campus’s five buildings.

“It doesn’t seem fair. Darn it, I tell you, there’s an awful lot of well-wishing going on today. We certainly have missed him,” Arntson said Tuesday afternoon. “He is always such a happy soul. He is extremely helpful and cheerful.”

Pfost, who said he wants to earn degrees in economics, accounting and computers, began classes in January. At the time, he knew nothing about computers. Now, he tutors other students.

Ambitious Goal

“The good Lord let me stay alive after my accident. I don’t want to sell him short,” Pfost said of his ambitious goal to earn three college degrees.

Pfost, an Idaho native, moved to California for the weather: “Can you imagine being like this in ice and snow?” His new temporary home, the VA hospital, is far from a new experience. Pfost, who was a long-haul truck driver, spent a year there undergoing therapy after a 1981 accident in Montana that left him an incomplete quadriplegic. “I was very bitter at first. I used to say ‘why me?’ . . . I tell you, if I hadn’t have been a Christian, I wouldn’t be where I am today. . . . I refuse to let my chair be a part of me.”

It took 40 firefighters 36 minutes to douse the Monday fire, which the Orange County Fire Department was investigating Tuesday. Pfost was at school when the fire broke out and destroyed two units of a six-apartment building. His live-in aide, Bessie Amnu, also a student, brought him the bad news.

Fire Destroyed Belongings

“She wasn’t looking too good. And then she said the apartment burnt down. It took me a while to realize what she said,” Pfost said.

In the fire, Pfost lost his new computer, special eating utensils and personal items, such as photographs of his three children and two grandchildren living in Idaho and Washington.

Amnu, who feeds and helps Pfost, said that she is optimistic he will bounce back from this latest tragedy.

“He’s very positive. He keeps on going,” she said. “It might set him back a little bit. But once he gets things together, he’ll go full-speed again.”