Paul Heidenreich was 29 when he crawled to the roof of the Tri-State Distributor warehouse on South Sherman Street with two other firefighters.
The plan was to ventilate the 49,000-square-foot building, and as the men struggled to remove the building’s skylight just before midnight on a Saturday, more than 60 other firefighters from 17 regional units battled the four-alarm fire below them.
When Heidenreich, Jim McNamee and Weldon Wolfe removed the ceiling’s skylight, air rushed into the building’s interior and fire blasted out in a ball. The ceiling collapsed, taking the three men into the inferno with it.
McNamee and Wolfe were pulled to safety through windows and later treated for second-degree burns. But Heidenreich wasn’t reached in time. An autopsy showed he died by inhaling super-heated air.
It happened 31 years ago. And it was the last time a Spokane firefighter perished in a blaze.
As the nation commemorates the thousands of lives lost on Sept. 11, 2001, including 343 New York Fire Department personnel, a local fire lieutenant is working to commemorate the 17 firefighters who have died in the line of duty since the creation of Spokane’s fire department in 1890.
“People were going into those buildings (on 9/11) when everyone else was running out,” said Greg Borg, a lieutenant on Fire Engine No. 3 in the West Central neighborhood. Borg has been collecting the stories of fallen firefighters since he joined the department 34 years ago.
“There are people in every community willing to put their lives on the line.”
And soon enough, thanks to Borg’s work, there will be reminders of these sacrifices embedded in the sidewalks where the men died.
On Post Street and Main Avenue, a plaque will tell of Capt. Leonard Doyle responding to a fire at the Peyton Building in 1966. He and six other firefighters were advancing a hose into the building when the floor collapsed. Doyle was crushed by a safe.
Outside of the old Zukor building in 1980, scores of firefighters were battling Spokane’s first four-alarm fire in 30 years. Capt. Robert Hanna was in the bucket of Ladder Tower No. 7 directing a water stream with Bob Green when the building collapsed and a piece of cornice fatally struck Hanna. A plaque will commemorate him at Riverside Avenue and Wall Street.
And at Main and Division Street, a memorial will tell of Capt. George Chapman demonstrating an aerial ladder in 1894. It broke and he fell more than 60 feet to his death, the first casualty for a young fire department.
This collage shows the portrait and the funeral for George T. Chapman, the first Spokane firefighter to die in the fire service, in 1894. It was likely a collectible photograph. (SR photo archive)
Borg, along with local community activist Karen Kearney, is trying to raise $30,000 for the project. Each plaque costs about $800, and they’ll have to pay to get them installed. Borg wants to keep a reserve in case the plaques are vandalized or stolen, or if another tragedy occurs.
Money for the plaques is being raised independently, and a fundraiser is planned for Oct. 12 at Mukogawa Fort Wright Institute Commons near Spokane Falls Community College.
“We’re not asking for a dime” from the city, Kearney said.
Borg said Metallic Arts will design the plaques, featuring the helmet shield of each fallen firefighter, his company and rank, and a brief description of the incident that took his life.
“These will remind people not only of their service, but will also educate the public at the same time,” Borg said.
A lot has changed over the last 120 years, innovations in infrared imaging and breathing apparatuses that help keep firefighters out of harm’s way.
But many of the Spokane firefighters’ deaths came from instances that could still happen today, things that firefighters just can’t avoid.
“Building collapse is a big danger,” Borg said. “But, if there are people in a building, we have to run in and get them out.”
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