Loss and rebirth in a ’66 fire
MOST were college students and adventure seekers, young men who spent the summer of 1966 choking off forest fires across the West, cutting trees and brush for days on end for about $2 an hour.
One day that fall, the crew was dispatched to a narrow ravine near Sylmar to help contain a blaze in the Angeles National Forest.
This was the 18th fire of the season for the 31-member El Cariso Hotshots. It looked like a mop-up operation, removing what little fuel remained in the burnt-over chute.
Gordon King, the crew’s leader, told his men to travel light, to grab tools but leave their portable fire shelters in the truck. Their $5 government-issue fire-retardant shirts were useless after repeated washings had leached out the protective coating. Most of the men didn’t put on gloves, and they rolled up their sleeves in the afternoon heat.
The 32-year-old King was a no-nonsense commander who led by example, outworked everyone and didn’t say much because he didn’t have to.
He was a student of fire, attuned to the way the fluctuating forces of sun, slope, smoke, wind and heat determined its course. King believed he could predict what a fire would do.
As he led his men into the abyss, they believed it too.
A faulty power line near Pacoima Dam sparked the fire before dawn. Fueled by 60 mph Santa Ana winds, the blaze blackened 2,000 acres around Loop Canyon and filled the northern San Fernando Valley with thick plumes of smoke.
When the El Cariso Hotshots entered a rocky ravine east of the canyon about 3 p.m., the fire was largely contained.
At 3:35 p.m., an unexpected shift in wind caused a small spot fire to develop below the crew. Within seconds, super-heated gas had raced up the 2,200-foot canyon and exploded, trapping the firefighters in 2,500-degree heat.
In 60 seconds, it was over.
Twelve hotshots died, among them three 18-year-olds, three 19-year-olds and two brothers. Ten others were burned, many critically.
The Loop fire of Nov. 1, 1966, was a watershed in wild land firefighting. It led to a clearer understanding of the perils posed by narrow canyons, of the way they could, with the slightest meteorological provocation, become chimneys poised to explode with the tiniest spark.
The fire resulted in safety protocols still used today that spell out how crews should -- and when they shouldn’t -- enter such terrain. The rules urge the use of lookouts and radios, which the El Cariso Hotshots didn’t have that day. The fire accelerated development of better communications and lightweight safety gear.
Its legacy also can be seen in the gnarled hands, leathery arms and scars that serve as constant reminders to its survivors. And it can be found in the mind of one man who, despite the fact investigators blamed no one for the disaster, holds himself responsible.
WITH his jet-black hair, thick 6-foot, 2-inch frame, brooding eyebrows and square jaw, Gordon King cut an intimidating profile. The young men who worked for him trusted and respected King. His crystal blue eyes revealed little except that he knew what he was doing.
King started fighting forest fires at 17, the summer after graduating from high school. He had been given no instruction on how to be a “ground pounder.” A football player looking to stay in shape for college ball, he had been told simply to cut brush until he was told to stop. He was immediately hooked. He had worked seven fires before a supervisor discovered his age and told him to come back when he was 18.
After stints in the Army and construction, King had gravitated back to the fire line. Because most hotshots then had little or no experience, King’s brief stint working fires as a teenager had qualified him to be a crew boss.
King had about 90 major fires under his belt when he was made superintendent of the El Cariso Hotshots in 1965. The crew, based in the Cleveland National Forest, had a C-46 transport plane on call, a rickety piece of military surplus that inspired its logo, a ruptured duck.
King ran his crew like a military outfit. After a man served a full shift on an active fire -- not a mop-up job -- he was awarded a green beret to wear off-duty. King’s aggressiveness didn’t sit well with some other hotshot superintendents, who thought he took unnecessary risks.
On the Loop fire, King believed the biggest danger his men faced was loose rock tumbling down the nearly sheer 2,200-foot-long slope. There was no fire in sight, just light smoke a few ridgelines away.
The crew carefully descended the ravine. Halfway down was a rock slide. The men would have simply scampered across it in the past. Now, with safety becoming more of an issue in the profession, King ordered his men to cross two-by-two to minimize the threat of a slide.
Rich Leak was toward the rear of the strung-out crew. The son of a fire captain at the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base, Leak had wanted to be a firefighter since he was boy. He was in his second year with the El Cariso Hotshots and was having the time of his life.
Earlier in the year, Leak had outrun a blaze in the Los Padres National Forest after the wind suddenly shifted. Once safely above it, he had watched the fire race down the valley so quickly that it overtook deer trying to escape.
What the 19-year-old knew about fire behavior wouldn’t fill his back pocket, where he stuffed his gloves the day of the Loop fire. But after 27 fires, he knew what it took to stop one: brute force, fearlessness and adherence to King’s instructions.
As King continued to lead his crew down, the walls of the ravine narrowed. He went around two huge boulders with a large tinder-dry sumac bush growing between them. He told the man following him to remove the bush. The crew was probably 15 minutes from finishing.
King saw Los Angeles County firefighters working with bulldozers to cut a firebreak at the bottom. He was close enough to hear voices. King heard a helicopter in a canyon to the west. The voices below turned to shouts.
Then King heard something he had never heard before. It sounded like wind, but it was as loud as a jet engine.
King took a step and noticed the leaves on a bush 30 yards downhill explode like popcorn.
At that moment, Leak saw something he had never seen before. The air around him was alive with waves.
This doesn’t look right, Leak thought.
Then he heard King yell an order he had never heard him give before.
SINCE 1910, 952 wild land firefighters have been killed in the United States, nearly a third in California. Five of them died after they were overrun last week by the Esperanza fire in Riverside County.
The deadliest blazes of modern times and their esoteric geographic names are part of the profession’s lore. Mann Gulch and Rattlesnake. South Canyon and Thirtymile. Inaja and Loop.
But it is a culture that changes in fits and starts.
A string of deadly fires in the 1950s led to an attempt to codify safety procedures.
The 10 Standard Firefighting Orders and another list of “watch-out situations” are still used today. They are a mix of sound tactics (identify escape routes, maintain communications), leadership advice (be alert, keep calm, think clearly, act decisively) and cautionary behavior (don’t nap near the fire line.)
After the Loop fire, then-Forest Service Chief Edward Cliff lamented in a memo that some of those procedures hadn’t been followed.
“We are barely keeping pace with the increasing risks and hazards of modern forest firefighting,” he wrote.
In the years since, the Forest Service has faced intense scrutiny after investigations of deadly fires -- among them a 1994 Colorado blaze that killed 14 -- found that guidelines on its ever-growing list were still being disregarded in the field.
The revelations led to a 2002 law mandating an independent investigation of fatal fires involving Forest Service employees.
Two years later, the incident commander on an Idaho blaze that killed two firefighters agreed to federal probation to avoid criminal charges. The move sent a chill through the ranks of fire managers. Some took early retirement and others bought personal liability insurance.
“It’s easy to look back after a fire and say, ‘You should have known this,’ ” said Ed Hollenshead, the Forest Service’s deputy fire director in California and its former national safety director.
He noted with disapproval an emphasis in recent years on “looking for who was to blame instead of what was to blame.”
Wild land firefighting remains a close-knit world patterned after the military, full of resolute people who believe that in a chaotic war with nature, losses are inevitable.
“The woods are a dangerous place even before you light them on fire,” said Jim Cook, training coordinator for the Forest Service’s National Interagency Fire Center in Idaho.
In the woods, as Gordon King’s men discovered, it’s what you don’t know that kills you. And what doesn’t kill you haunts you.
KING clawed up the mountain on all fours. His goal: the rock slide, the crew’s predetermined safety zone in case of emergency. He got only a few feet when the first blast of searing air hit him from behind. It threw King forward, ramming his head into a large rock. He dropped to his knees. His mind spun.
King stood and looked downhill, wondering what hit him. He reached to pick up his hard hat and saw something that looked like melted wax hanging off his right arm. His skin. He felt no pain, just confusion. King stuffed a handkerchief in his mouth to protect his lungs.
Then he heard the roar again.
Another blast of air -- much hotter -- punched him in the face. The right lens of his sunglasses melted and he swatted them away. A flap of skin from his forehead hung over his right eye, blurring his vision. His hands looked like freshly butchered meat.
Knowing there was no escape straight up or down, King angled across the ravine, stumbling and falling through brush and rock that tore at his blistered hands and arms. His path dead-ended at a nearly vertical 10-foot-high rock wall.
Smoke and fire encircled King. He sat, and for the first time in his life, gave up. Above him, Rich Leak heard the initial roar too. He took a few steps uphill toward the rock slide, then stopped to look downhill. An orange curtain hung from the sky.
A second later, it knocked him to his knees and rolled over him. It was like being fed into a blast furnace. Time stopped. Leak wondered how much more he could stand. He raised his arms and prayed.
Others did too. Ed Cosgrove heard their cries for mercy.
Cosgrove, 22, had joined the El Cariso Hotshots the previous year, answering a newspaper ad. The comradeship and structure reminded him of the Army. Cosgrove viewed King the way a combat soldier sees his platoon leader.
“Gordon was God,” Cosgrove would say later.
So when he heard King’s order to run, he didn’t think twice.
He turned and sought purchase in the loose rock but found none. In the panic, Cosgrove was knocked to the ground. The fire swept over him and two crew mates, one on each side of him. Cosgrove held his breath as long as he could, knowing the consequences of inhaling the scalding air.
Of the three, only he survived.
Jerry Smith was farther up the canyon. He was a recent high school graduate who had joined the hotshots on a whim a few weeks earlier.
This was his third fire. He had received no training. He was just handed a brush-cutting tool and told to take everything down to dirt.
At 19, Smith was in good shape. But this was strenuous work, harder than he had anticipated. It was difficult to keep up. He once had found himself alone, surrounded by smoke and fire, having to run to catch up with his crew mates.
Despite that, he saw the danger he faced as an abstraction. Like being near fire at Disneyland -- real but controlled.
So when he heard someone yell “Get down!” Smith had no idea how out of control his life was about to become.
RICH Leak never shed a tear. Not during the three months he was hospitalized. Not during the multiple surgeries and skin grafts that turned his body into a human quilt.
His nose came from skin on his neck. His arms were once part of his chest and buttocks. The tissue on his hands was regrown when his hands were sewn under a flap of abominable skin for six weeks. When removed, they were two lumps of flesh. More surgeries shaped them into something functional.
“I’m the type of person who believes you’re dealt the hand you’re given; you need to adapt and go on,” said Leak, 59. “I wanted to be my own man.”
Leak relearned everything, from writing to using a knife and fork.
“Today, I sometimes look at people and it’s like, ‘What are you doing with five fingers on your hand? You don’t need them to get along,’ ” he said. “I joke about it a lot. I laugh about it. Maybe that’s how I deal with it.”
Still, he is conscious of prying eyes. He hates getting change. If a store clerk doesn’t place the coins in the sweet spot of Leak’s palm where he can grasp them, it’s likely they’ll clatter to the counter.
“Now I’m embarrassed,” he said. “Suddenly I have to do all this stupid stuff, pushing it to a corner or trying to find a crack in the counter so the coin tips up and I can grab it.”
He married a woman who told him she never noticed his hands when they met. Rich and Angelica Leak have been together 31 years and raised her two children from a prior relationship, one of whom was born with one arm.
Leak’s dream of being a firefighter died in the Loop disaster, but he did not walk away from the profession. He became a dispatcher for the Vista Fire Department after demonstrating that he could peck out 25 words per minute on a typewriter. He retired six years ago as a fire inspector and arson investigator and moved to Hesperia.
“I screwed up,” he said, looking back on the Loop fire. If only he had been wearing gloves. If only he had rolled down his sleeves.
What Cosgrove remembers is this: That with his hands burned to the bone, Leak put out the fire on crew mates and helped others board a rescue helicopter before being evacuated himself.
“I didn’t do anything heroic,” said Cosgrove, 62, a retired electrician who lives in San Marcos. “I just survived.”
Cosgrove lost part of both ears, which were reconstructed by a surgeon. He had skin grafts on his legs, hands and arms, which left him with a rough-hewn, two-toned complexion.
His original wedding date, three weeks after the fire, was postponed until the next spring. Like Leak’s wife, Judy Cosgrove looked beyond her husband’s disfigurement.
“I never saw the scars,” she said. “I prefer to look at what’s inside a person.”
He had always been a fun-loving guy, a joker and storyteller. But after the fire, he fell into a deep depression. “I just wanted to die,” he said. If someone looked at him the wrong way, he’d snap: What the hell are you staring at?
But Cosgrove was able to right himself fairly quickly. He recalls driving home from work about six months after the fire and seeing a girl of around 12 standing on a street corner with one leg and crutches.
“I thought to myself, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ That’s the day I came out of that self-pity and just moved on.”
It took Jerry Smith more than 20 years.
“I was clueless, a fresh kid out of high school who just fell off the melon wagon when this happened,” said Smith, 59, who lives in Crestline in the San Bernardino Mountains. “I didn’t want anything to do with the world after that.”
He lost a finger on his right hand. Another is pinned at a 90-degree angle and both hands are so scarred that it looks as if Smith is wearing heavy gloves. His lungs were damaged by the hot air he inhaled. (He hadn’t been on the job long enough to learn to stuff a handkerchief into his mouth.)
There were years of nightmares in which he ran away from fire. So many follow-up surgeries he lost count. A bottomless depression, which he treated with booze and drugs
“It put all that fire stuff below the surface,” Smith said. “It quieted my brain.”
He relearned to play the bass guitar upside down and earned money playing with blues bands, even appeared on a few albums. But his actual occupation was victim, and payday came with his government disability checks. He sired two children with two women, married one, ran away from her, got married again.
By 1986, his second marriage was nearing the rocks. His wife gave him an ultimatum: Get sober or I’m gone.
He did. Smith became a registered nurse and gravitated to rehabilitation, working with patients recovering from spinal cord injuries, strokes and burns. He brought something to the job others could not: his story of despair, self-destruction and renewal.
“It made me whole,” he said. “It got rid of this big hole I had inside of me where a giant cannonball had gone through my gut. Giving it away, being a service to others, got me out of my own self pity.... I’m on the path that I’m supposed to be on now.”
A few years ago, on the spur of the moment, Smith drove to the San Fernando Valley and trudged up the chute where a change in the wind had blown him off course decades before.
“I’m proud of having been a hotshot, even though I only spent a few weeks in it,” Smith said. He brought back a hunk of gnarled wood he keeps on a shelf. “It looked like maybe it had been burned, like me.”
KING gave up as the fire closed in, but when a nearby bush exploded and the flames slapped his face, it made him angry -- for surrendering. He got to his feet, found a path out and slid and tumbled down a nearly vertical slope to safety.
The first person he encountered was an L.A. County battalion chief who, seeing King’s burns, put his hand to his mouth and gagged.
The next day, King lay in his hospital bed with second-degree burns over a third of his body and wept.
“Which ones made it I don’t know. I don’t want to know,” he sobbed to a reporter. “I keep thinking to myself: Why? Why? Why?”
Shame and survivor’s guilt overwhelmed him. King decided his only choice was to bury it, to never talk about what happened or how he felt, even to his wife, Johnny Ruth. “You don’t know how much it hurt,” he said.
When King returned to work, he was kicked upstairs into command positions. The Loop fire was never discussed. At times, King felt as if he was being indulged and given jobs he hadn’t earned. Other times, it felt as if colleagues avoided him because he was a bad luck charm. “There were rumors that I was going to blow my brains out,” he said.
He kept his pain private but it was always there, bubbling up in nightmares and fits of weeping. He replayed the tape of the afternoon over and over in his head, picking it apart, looking for answers. What could I have done?
Work was King’s salvation. It kept his mind occupied. He retired from government service in 1979, owned an auto repair shop for 20 years, built a sprawling home in Bakersfield that’s still a work in progress, took a job at Home Depot -- anything to keep busy.
“That’s the only therapy I know,” King said.
For 37 years, he kept the promise he made to himself in the hospital: He spoke of the Loop fire to no one.
Three years ago, a local firefighting fire supervisor sought King out at Home Depot and invited him to speak to a group of hotshot superintendents. King reluctantly agreed. That led to a request to speak to a national fire conference. When he told the story of the Loop fire, he wept, as did many in the audience.
“It was really remarkable,” said Mellie Coriell, a Northern California research psychologist who has studied post-traumatic stress in firefighters. “I wanted to put my arm around him, take him home, look after him and just make sure he’s as happy as he can be.”
Friends suggested that King write his life story as a way to exorcise the most indelible 60 seconds of it. And so King, now 72, writes and rewrites, thousands of pages so far. A few times he has come across Johnny Ruth reading his work in progress. They still haven’t talked about it.
“People have said to me, ‘You were just in the wrong place at the wrong time,’ ” he said. “I don’t care what anybody else says.... I blame myself for my crew’s demise. Always have. Always will.
“It’s something I’m not proud of,” he added. “They trusted me.”