Coeur d’Alene city firefighter Richard Gaines was 27 years old when he fell to his death through the floor of a burning building in July 1951.
He left behind a wife and two young children.
The city’s only firefighter to die in the line of duty, Gaines will be among those honored when the city dedicates the Fallen Heroes Memorial Plaza at 5:30 p.m. today, the eighth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
The memorial – two years in the making – pays tribute to the lives lost in the terrorist attacks with a scaled-down replica of the World Trade Center plaza. It also honors every Idaho law enforcement officer and firefighter who has died in the line of duty.
A recent chance encounter between a city firefighter and Gaines’ now 60-year-old daughter will bring her to the memorial dedication today as an honored guest.
Engraved in granite at the plaza are the names of those who died battling forest fires and structure fires, and those who died under gunfire and in car accidents. The timeline stretches from 1883 to this year.
The names include Linda Huff, the Idaho State Police trooper killed outside her office in 1998. They include the 50 firefighters killed in the fire of 1910, with another 28 stars representing those killed in that fire but not identified. And they include Lee Newbill, the Moscow officer killed in a gunbattle in May 2007.
“Every name and every number in the plaza has a story,” said Glenn Lauper, Coeur d’Alene Fire Department deputy chief.
Standing sentinel over the engraved names are five 12-foot-high rebar sculptures of police officers and firefighters, with one space left empty to represent fallen comrades.
Adjacent to the plaza is the Sept. 11 memorial. Two tall basalt columns represent the World Trade Center towers hit by hijacked planes that morning. Surrounding them are granite footprints of other buildings in the plaza to help educate visitors about the tragedy. A T-beam artifact from the World Trade Center, given to the Coeur d’Alene Fire Department by the Fire Department of New York, is embedded in stone at the head of the plaza.
“It all comes back to honoring our fallen brothers and sisters,” said Bobby Gonder, a Coeur d’Alene fire inspector.
Gonder searched for more than a year to find family members of Richard Gaines to invite to the ceremony, but he had no luck.
Two months ago, a city firefighter met a woman in St. Maries, outside Bud’s Drive In. The woman approached him because he had firefighter decals on his helmet and motorcycle. She told him her father had been the only Coeur d’Alene firefighter to die in the line of duty.
“He said, ‘Yes, Dick Gaines,’ and I was shocked,” said Connie Gaines Hansen. “That was 57 years ago. How could he ever know that?” Hansen, who lives in Western Washington but often visits her family’s vacation home on the St. Joe River near St. Maries, said the firefighter told her about a memorial to her father at the Coeur d’Alene Fire Department. “My husband and I, when we were going home, we stopped by to see it.”
Richard Gaines was called to an early-morning fire at a bowling alley at 213 Sherman Ave. on July 15, 1951. The Fire Department recently interviewed former firefighter Ben Patzer, who also fought the fire that morning. Patzer said in the interview that he heard Gaines yell when he fell through the floor.
“There was nothing I could do,” Patzer said. “The smoke was so thick in there you could hardly think.”
The other firefighters searched for Gaines through the smoke but it was Patzer who finally found him, lying on the basement floor, his helmet cocked to one side. “It catches you with your eyes open, you might say, how that can happen so quickly,” Patzer said.
Hansen said her mother told her about her father’s death, but she doesn’t remember much from that time. Learning of the honor bestowed upon her father after all these years and seeing historical photos of that time is a gift, she said.
“I’m amazed that they still remember him,” she said. “They have a wall in their administrative building dedicated to my dad. I was just amazed, astonished and completely honored.”