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Firefighters Monument Plan Hasn’t Caught Fire With Potential Donors : Tribute: Only one-third of the necessary $200,000 has been raised. Sponsors hope ‘Backdraft’ will encourage an outpouring of monetary support.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was touted as a symbol, a 30-ton granite monument to Orange County’s 4,500 firefighters, including those who died in the line of duty.

But it’s been three years since plans were unveiled, and fund raising has slowed. Only one-third of the $200,000 needed to build the monument has been raised. So Trinity--the name of the monument intended to honor the dead, as well as to pay tribute to the living firefighters, their families and future firefighters--remains little more than a bare spot in the Santa Ana Civic Center.

“We’re really kind of looking at how we’re going to progress with this,” said Wayne Johnson, president of the Orange County Firemen’s Assn.

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As they search for ways to move forward with the dormant project, some fire officials are hoping for a burst of public interest from a new movie, “Backdraft.” The film is about firefighters, and sponsors of the monument hope it will remind viewers of the danger that those men and women endure in their work.

“I do hope it brings to the fore some of the dangers that firefighters face in their duties,” said Richard Keller, a retired Santa Ana battalion chief who instructs student recruits at a fire academy operated by the Rancho Santiago Community College District. “I hope the citizens would be open to a monument honoring firefighters,” he said.

The dangers are all too real. For some firefighters they can even be fatal.

In Orange County, two firefighters have died while on duty during the past 11 years, one in 1983, the other in 1980. The last firefighter killed was Capt. Gil Hund, a 23-year veteran of the Fullerton Fire Department. He was thrown from a fire engine in a collision with a car as the engine raced to battle a blaze. Hund, 48, died at the scene.

The monument idea came from Msgr. John Sammon, vicar of community and pastoral life for the Catholic Diocese of Orange and official chaplain to every firefighter in the county.

“The highest rate of injury and death in any particular career (occurs with) firefighters,” Sammon said. “Look at the medical rescuers and those who work on hazardous materials teams. In addition to fire suppression, they’re constantly giving to the community.”

There is a monument for firefighters in Maryland, another in Sacramento and a third in Los Angeles.

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On Thursday, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley joined with other city officials in honoring the 48 Los Angeles firefighters who have died battling blazes since 1906.

Meanwhile, the lack of money has slowed Orange County’s monument. But much of the groundwork has already been done.

The site for the monument has been donated by the County Board of Supervisors. Sammon identified the land as near a walkway between the county’s Hall of Administration and the Hall of Records on Broadway in Santa Ana. Riverside sculptor Frank Hagen has already designed an 18-foot-tall structure, and a model has been built.

The model shows three granite columns leading up to a brass bell. The bell, according to plans, symbolizes “unity,” and will be built by melting down brass hose couplings donated from each of the 16 fire departments in the county.

A brass statue of a firefighter holding a young child in his arms will stand between the columns.

Johnson said each of the three spires has its own meaning. One is for firefighters who lost their lives in the line of duty, as well as bearing tribute to injured and retired firefighters. The second spire symbolizes active firefighters, while the third is for all future firefighters.

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“The third (spire) was to have a motivating factor for those who are looking at firefighting as a career,” Sammon said.

For those wishing more information, Orange Fire Chief Martel Thompson is chairman of the monument’s organizing committee. He can be contacted at (714) 288-2500.

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