GLENDALE — Nearly 15 years ago, Glendale Firefighter Bill Jensen and five fellow firefighters were battling a massive blaze in Calabasas when the winds suddenly changed direction. Jenson was caught in the flames. He was burned on more than 70% of his body.
Doctors gave him a 5% chance of survival. But Jensen fought through the pain and overcame his injuries.
“I was unlucky enough to get injured that day, but lucky enough to be the one to walk these footsteps for the last 14 years,” Jensen said.
The now-retired firefighter’s struggle caught the attention of renowned sculptor Michael Kalish, who unveiled his 15-foot-tall, 400-pound monument depicting a firefighter’s turnout coat and helmet on Thursday at Glendale Fire Department headquarters on Oak Street in honor of Jensen.
“If I can create a bucket list of pieces that I would create in my lifetime, I would say the top percentage of that…is something for a firefighter,” Kalish said.
After visiting Jensen in his home, Kalish, who transforms found objects into elaborate art pieces, said he was inspired by the protective turnout coat Jensen wore during the Oct. 22, 1996 blaze.
Kalish and his crew purchased a red 1980s-era fire engine and pulled it apart. He and his crew used its materials to build the turnout coat seen in the sculpture. The coat’s sleeve is adorned with the words “Glendale Fire.” He also used pieces of the fire engine to construct the firefighter’s helmet, which he covered with bits of fire hose. The helmet bears the number 24, which was the number of Jensen’s engine company the day of the fire.
Kalish and his crew worked 15 hours a day for three weeks to complete the monument.
Retired Glendale Firefighter Scott French, who was also burned during the blaze, and retired Capt. Ed Ackerman, who was in charge of Engine 24, helped Kalish weld pieces of the monument together.
Ackerman fought alongside Jensen to protect a home during the life-altering blaze.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” he said.
Jensen spent four months at the Grossman Burn Center in Sherman Oaks, where he underwent 40 surgeries.
Jensen’s health has dramatically improved since his last surgery seven years ago.
But he couldn’t return to work, so he began talking to students about fire safety and providing support to other burn victims.
He and his wife, Sue Jensen, live in Burbank and enjoy spending time with their six grandchildren.
The couple volunteers for the nonprofit Firefighters’ Quest for Burn Survivors organization, which raises funds for survivors, similar foundations and local burn centers.
Jensen and other firefighters founded the organization, which has raised more than $2.5 million for burn survivors.