On Pacoima Playground With Ritchie Valens : Grief Moves Him to Save Lives

Times Staff Writer

In a grainy dream sequence that recurs throughout the movie “La Bamba,” two droning planes fly over a schoolyard where teen-agers are playing basketball in slow motion. Suddenly the planes collide, exploding and showering wreckage on the playground.

The sequence dramatizes an event that occurred in 1957 at Pacoima Junior High School, claiming the lives of three students and five crew members and causing dozens of injuries.

One student developed an intense fear of flying after the accident--Ricardo Valenzuela, who later adopted the name Ritchie Valens. He cut three hit albums in an 8-month career and died in a plane crash that also killed rockers Buddy Holly and J.P. Richardson, known as the Big Bopper.


Another student deeply moved by the schoolyard tragedy was Bill Frazer, who would translate his trauma into public service. Today, as chairman of the safety services committee for the Westwood office of the American Red Cross, Frazer continues to offer much of his free time to others for no compensation other than satisfaction.

Volunteer Instructor

“That day really got home to me and got me very, very interested in keeping up my first aid skills,” said Frazer, 47, who had previously taken first aid courses as a Boy Scout. “It brought home that disasters don’t always happen to other people. Sometimes they happen in your own backyard.”

Since then, Frazer has been a volunteer instructor for the Civil Air Patrol, the Foundation for the Junior Blind and the Red Cross. For the last 15 years, he has organized groups of Red Cross volunteers to provide emergency first aid at public, nonprofit events such as marathons and parades.

“Everyone should be able to give something back to the community,” he said. “Voluntarism is one thing that helped make this country what it is today.

“I do these things because I enjoy them. People don’t know until they volunteer that it can be a very rewarding and enjoyable experience.”

Three years ago, when the Red Cross offered him a job teaching first aid, cardiopulmonary resuscitation and earthquake preparedness to employees of corporations, Frazer started doing for pay what he had done for satisfaction. But he continues to teach public classes as a volunteer.


Helps at Many Events

And he continues to coordinate emergency first aid teams at public events as diverse as the Hollywood Christmas Parade and the Los Angeles Garlic Festival. The situations he has handled range from headaches and bee stings to hypothermia and cardiac arrest.

“Over the years, our people have handled just about everything you can imagine,” he said. “Anytime you’re dealing with a major crowd, it’s a good idea to have first aid stations.”

One typical event was a Nov. 12 high school band and drill team competition at which four Red Cross volunteers were confronted with 25 incidents, including an asthma attack, a head injury, a knee injury and two cases of hyperventilation, one accompanied by shock.

“We came within about 10 minutes of delivering a baby at a parade once, which is about as close as I ever want to come,” he said.

During Pope John Paul II’s visit to Los Angeles last year, Frazer’s first aid team was at the Coliseum when more than 50 people collapsed from breathing the exhaust fumes of idling buses.

Frazer believes that six or seven lives were saved because his team administered emergency first aid before paramedics arrived.


“There’s nothing better than that, I’ll tell you,” he said. “That’s worth all the trouble and problems.”

Two years ago, his unit had no vehicle to transport equipment and supplies. During his daily commute to work, Frazer passed a yard filled with Los Angeles Fire Department paramedic ambulances no longer in use, and he wondered if one could be donated.

Bought for $1

He wrote to Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, who informed him that the city could not give away equipment but could sell it at a reasonable price. The matter was presented to the council, and the price agreed upon was $1.

By doing aggressive fund-raising, Frazer and his unit were able to stock the ambulance with a gurney, an electric blood-pressure unit, sheets, blankets, bandages, and first aid, major injury and burn kits.

Frazer’s associates at the West District office in Westwood say his acquisition of the ambulance is typical of his willingness to go above and beyond minimum expectations.

“He is a real go-getter,” said Beverly Doran, district manager. “He’s one of our most innovative volunteers. He sets standards for himself that sometimes the rest of us are a bit out of breath trying to meet.”


Joy Townsend, safety specialist, was an instructor of Frazer who in 1971 asked him to consider teaching public classes as a volunteer. Little did she know that she was recruiting a Red Cross devotee.

“I have the highest regard for him,” Townsend said. “He’s dedicated, he’s interested, he’s personable, he gets along with groups of people and he’s interested in helping his fellow man.”