‘Kelly climbed that aerial ladder to heaven’: Mourners recall L.A. firefighter who died in training accident

When Kelly Wong was a young boy and shopping with his mother in Hong Kong, he asked her for a toy.

She was a single mom, and money was tight. She reached into her pocket and showed her son the few coins she had. Wong could choose the toy, she said, or he could choose to eat.

He chose to eat.

Wong did eventually get a toy that he cherished for many years: a firetruck. So when he became a fireman for the Los Angeles Fire Department two years ago, graduating at the top of his recruit class, his mother was not surprised.


She told him he may even become chief some day. But Wong, who died during a training exercise this month, never got the chance.

On Friday, hundreds of mourners, including scores of uniformed firefighters, gathered at Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in downtown Los Angeles to pay their final respects to the 29-year-old fireman.

Firefighters wore black mourning bands, with the name Wong spelled in white letters, across their badges. Wong’s flag-draped casket was driven up Temple Street in the bed of an LAFD truck covered in black and purple bunting. Bagpipers played beneath a blue, cloudless sky.

Wong died June 5, two days after falling 55 to 65 feet from an aerial ladder during a training exercise at the Barclay Hotel on 4th Street, according to a preliminary investigative report from the LAFD. He landed on the trailer deck of a firetruck.


Wong was climbing the ladder during a “simulated fire incident” when he fell, wearing full protective firefighting equipment, according to the report. Three people ascended the ladder; Wong went first.

Fellow firefighters and paramedics treated him at the scene before he was taken to Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center, where he died two days later, officials said. Investigations into his death by the LAFD and state agencies are ongoing.

At his funeral Friday, colleagues lamented an ambitious young man’s life being cut short in its prime. Wong, they said, packed a full, happy life into his 29 years.

He was a new father, leaving behind a 10-month-old son, Colton, and his wife, Danielle. He had just been approved to transfer to a new station to work alongside his two best friends in LAFD Station 9, which serves the skid row area downtown and is one of the department’s busiest stations.


One of Wong’s mentors, retired Los Angeles County Fire Capt. Bill Travis, said Wong would be remembered for his humility and unfettered passion for being a fireman.

“I was continually amazed by his intelligence, wisdom, compassion and humbleness,” Travis said. “It was exciting to mentor Kelly. I marveled at his potential and what he would become.”

Travis read a eulogy written by Wong’s mother, Anne — including the story of his wanting a toy — because she was too emotional to speak.

Wong was born in Hong Kong and immigrated to the United States with his mom when he was 8. Neither of them spoke English, but by the time Wong was 16, attending school in Upland, he could read, write and speak four languages and carried a perfect 4.0 grade-point average, according to his mother’s eulogy.


Wong was an avid outdoorsman and fitness enthusiast who worked out twice a day, colleagues said. He had been working on getting his private pilot’s license just before he died.

Wong worked for several years as a forest firefighter, battling wildfires with the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, where he was part of an elite hotshot crew. He also worked for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

In August 2015, Wong graduated from the LAFD Recruit Academy on Terminal Island in San Pedro as the top academic performer in his class, according to the LAFD. Becoming a Los Angeles fireman was his dream job.

Mayor Eric Garcetti remembered meeting Wong and how impressed he had been by him. Speaking directly to Wong’s wife and infant son, Garcetti choked up.


“He was our firefighter,” Garcetti said. “Not just any firefighter. He was an L.A. city firefighter, and they don’t get any better.”

Wong was last assigned to LAFD Station 92 in Rancho Park and was in the process of transferring to Station 9 in skid row to work with his friends, firefighters Ernie Orrante and Steve Oransky, who were groomsmen at his wedding.

A lot of people don’t want to work in Station 9, which is “the busiest firehouse in the city,” Orrante said. Wong couldn’t wait. He was working at Station 9 at the time of his fall.

“I know we’ve all seen the movie ‘Step Brothers,’” Orrante said, referencing the 2008 Will Ferrell comedy. “That kind of describes our relationship. Kelly was our best friend. Us three goofballs, we did almost everything together.”


The morning of Wong’s fall, he came to the firehouse early, thrilled to be working with his new station. For a rare moment, there were no alarms going off. Wong, Orrante and Oransky had the station’s kitchen to themselves as they ate breakfast.

“Us three monsters sat down side-by-side, shoulder-to-shoulder, laughing, making fun of each other, talking out our future, what’s going to happen throughout the day,” Orrante said. “That was the most beautiful moment I will never forget.”

Wong had made his two friends personalized elevator picks — used to open elevators during rescues — as a gift. He told them to keep it secret, otherwise he’d have to make some for the whole crew.

Orrante and Oransky told him OK, hugged and thanked him — then promptly announced the gift to the rest of the station, saying he’d agreed to make the tools for everyone. Wong “had such a big heart,” he agreed to do so, Orrante said.


A short time later, “Kelly climbed that aerial ladder to heaven,” Orrante said.

Oransky, the godfather to Wong’s son, said Wong’s “passion for the fire service was intense” — but that he was most excited to become a new father, telling his friends about all the new books he was going to read about being a dad and about the kind of man he wanted Colton to be.

“No matter how busy he was, he’d always make time for the people he cared about,” Oransky said.

As a tribute to Wong’s fire service, a bell was rung 10 times near his casket, with his colleagues standing around him. The final ring lingered in the air of the cathedral.


Twitter: @haileybranson