Written May 2016 by Allan Craig Stump
Recently a friend of mine, Willie Simmons, asked that I would do a partial autobiography about my time in Vietnam and my Fire Department career. Willie is a retired Marine Corps Lt. Colonel with thirty five years in the Corps who also served in Vietnam. Willie and I first met in Huntsville, Alabama in 2009. We were part of an effort to organize several motorcycle enthusiasts consisting of former Marines and FMF Navy Corpsmen for the purpose of assisting and supporting various veterans’ groups. The Semper Fi Riders was formed and we've been friends ever since with many miles together on two wheels.
I had just turned 17 and was finishing my junior year of high school. Viet Nam was in the headlines, the draft was in full swing, and I had no idea what I would do after my senior year and graduation. And why not! I was a 17 year old teenager. My biggest problems were pimples, girls, and the next school year. I was an average student and only got decent grades in my math classes and biology and hated history. But I did know that the next twelve months would go by quickly.
College was not in the equation. I felt that I was not college material and that I would not do well, and besides, I had no clue about choosing a major or career path. The idea of being drafted into the Army did not set well either. I couldn't picture myself in the middle of a gun battle, huddled up in a hole in the ground, raining, wet and cold, with bullets whizzing by. I watched too many war movies growing up as you can tell. Yet, that's what I thought and I knew that my chances of being drafted were good. I had to come up with another plan.
I moved to Las Vegas when I was one year old with my mom and step father and I was eight years old when we moved near Nellis Air Force Base. As a kid, I watched the jets take off and land and especially enjoyed watching the Thunderbirds practice overhead. I loved everything about airplanes. I also had a mentor growing up that worked for the FAA as an air traffic controller. Several times I was able to go up in the tower at McCarran Airport and watch him work the planes. For a young boy, it was marvelous.
It was time for a plan. Because of my love of airplanes, I decided to join the Air Force Reserve and get a jump on the draft. Screw the draft and the Army. I wanted to be an air traffic controller with the Air Force, so I set off to find the reserve center. You would think that such a large base as Nellis AFB would have a reserve unit. Well, it didn't.
Although I felt disappointed, I didn't give up. I still had some options. What about the Navy? They have airplanes and as it turned out they also had a small reserve center in Las Vegas, go figure. A Naval Reserve Unit in the middle of the desert.
Well to make this part of my story shorter, I enlisted and was sworn in on June 6th, 1964. After about a month I was flown to San Francisco and did my boot camp or recruit training on Treasure Island, California. The military was in a fast build up mode in all the services at this time with the draft and regular enlistments. A lot of guys were joining reserves units for the same reason I did. The Navy was running the reserves through a condensed boot camp of only two weeks to get us through as soon as possible. Most of the guys would soon be on active duty, but I still had a year of school left.
My Senior Year
I started school and began drilling at the Reserve Center four hours every Monday night. After a month or two of some basic orientation I was approached by one of Chiefs and was told I needed to start training classes for a specific rate or job that was offered there at the Center. By this time, I knew that the air traffic controller thing
was a bust. When I took my physical, I didn't pass the color blind test. Oh well. The Center had four different positions that I could train for. They were Signalman, Electronics Technician, Engineman, and Hospital Corpsman. The color vision problem precluded Signalman and Electronics Tech and I was never much into mechanics or a gear head, so the only thing left was Hospital Corpsman.
I quickly found out what a Corpsman did. For those of you who don't, a Hospital Corpsman is equivalent to a medic in the Army. But why do they call them "Corpsman". You'll find out later as I did.
I continued my drilling and training throughout my senior year and graduated in June of 1965. Within a few days after graduation I was sent to San Diego and boarded the USS Shields, a destroyer, for a two week training cruise. I spent most of my time in the sick bay with the ships Corpsman or chipping paint. Oh joy. I survived the cruise, returned home and to the reserve center and immediately got active duty orders for my Class A school at the San Diego Naval Hospital for Hospital Corpsman. It lasted three and a half months. I graduated, was promoted to E-3 and returned to Vegas and back on reserve status.
After I returned from San Diego I got a job at Montgomery Ward’s working in the garden department. The pay was pitiful and the job sucked, but at least I was working. I was now waiting for orders for a two year active duty commitment and I didn't have to wait long. I was activated and reported for duty on October 20th at Port Hueneme, Construction Battalion Center, California. I was assigned to the small station hospital which was located just past the main entrance. It had a small ward for military personnel and one for civilians. I worked the military ward eight hours a day five days a week and had to pull a weekend duty every three or four weeks.
I thought I had it made; an easy job, Southern California, beaches, girls, Disneyland, etc. I could do the next two years standing on my head. Well, remember a few paragraphs back when I asked why do they're called Hospital "Corpsmen"? The Marine Corps, being part of the navy, uses Navy Corpsmen for their medical personnel. Thus, the term Corpsman! As you've probably guessed by now, my days in Southern Cal were numbered.
May and June 1966-Field Medical School
Someday in May I was approached by the Chief Corpsman and was handed a packet with new orders, "Report to Commanding Officer, Camp Pendleton, USMC, Field Medical School". I packed up my gear and I had a few days before I had to report, so I went home to see my family.
I arrived at Camp Pendleton at the Delmar area where the school was located not knowing what to expect. I did know that it would be a five week school and the Marine Corps would do its best in short order to teach me the Marine Corps way. The school consisted of approximately forty Corpsmen and two Marine drill instructors. The first three weeks consisted of learning to drill, weapons, equipment, more drilling, beach landings, oh, and did I say drilling. We never walked anywhere; it was always running in formation. Our last two weeks concentrated only on field medicine with dozens of scenarios from minor wounds, to amputations.
A quick history lesson
Most nonmilitary civilians don't know, as I said earlier, that The Marine Corps, being part of the Navy, uses Hospital Corpsmen for their combat medics. Every time you see a Marine unit there will always be a Corpsman among them or close by. They're hard to recognize. They look like any other Marine except they carry a pistol for a weapon and their medical bag. They're usually where the action is. Their one and only purpose is to tend to the Marines medical needs and keep them alive if possible. Corpsmen that have gone thru Field Med School and assigned to a Marine unit are referred to as FMF (Fleet Marine Force) Corpsmen and have a long proud history of serving with their Marines who respect them for their service. Once you've gained that respect, you'll acquire the title of "Doc".
FMF Corpsmen are the only members of the military who are issued both Navy and Marine uniforms. The difference is the Marine uniform displays his Navy rank with the medical caduceus on his left sleeve only.
When I graduated with the rest of the class, we all stood proud in our Marine uniforms knowing that we had completed something special. And we also knew that all of us would be heading to Vietnam very soon. And we also knew that some of us would not return.
After graduating I went home for a few more days with orders to report to Travis Air Force Base and board a flight with other military personnel to the island of Okinawa and then on to Vietnam. It was the fourth of July when I left, how appropriate. We landed in Okinawa in a driving thunderstorm. I never thought it could rain that hard. We all reported to Camp Hansen and began three days of processing. I had a sea bag that was stored there with unnecessary items that I would pick up on the way home, I hoped. Another plane flew us from Okinawa to Da Nang, Vietnam and once again went through a couple hours of processing. It would be here that I would find out my final assignment. What unit would I get?
1st Marine Division, 3rd Amphibious Tractor Battalion, H&S Company needed a replacement Corpsman. I felt somewhat relieved; I could have gotten a grunt unit. 3rd Traks was located in Chulai which is 60 miles south of Da Nang on the coast of the China Sea. I boarded a C-130 and in less than an hour I was there and was picked up by another Corpsman attached to the unit.
The length of a Vietnam tour was generally thirteen months and when I stepped off that airplane in DaNang I could not see the light at the end of the tunnel. It felt like it would be a lifetime.
3rd Tracks Battalion was located along the beach. The aid station was a typical canvas GP tent spread over a wooden frame approximately 15 feet by 30 feet. Most of the Battalion was on the seaward side of a large sand dune that ran parallel with the beach. On the west side of the sand dune about a half mile from us was a Marine Corps airfield and an ammo dump.
The airfield was vulnerable from attack, therefore, there was a perimeter of sandbag fortified outposts spread every 50 to 75 yards apart surrounding the airfield. They were basically a hole in the ground rimmed with sandbags for protection. Every week all the different Battalions around Chulai would send a compliment of men to man the outposts. About 75 men would change out every week. I was the new guy so one of my first duties was the airfield.
My first night there I was assigned to an outpost with two marines. I took the midnight to four am watch. It was a bright moonlight night so most objects, mostly bushes and trees, were somewhat visible for the most part. There I was, brand new in country, didn't know my ass from a hole in the ground, scared, nervous and had no idea what to expect and I knew that every bush and tree was a Vietcong and each one was moving in the distance. Well, as you might have guessed, nothing moved and nothing happened for the entire week, except for the big crash.
About a thousand feet from the end of the runway and offset about 500 feet from centerline was a common area set up for sleeping, eating and resting when you weren't on guard duty. It comprised of several tents with all their side flaps open for ventilation. After we all had been there for a couple of days we got used to the jets constantly taking off; Mostly A4 Skyhawks and F4 Phantoms. About my fourth or fifth day there, I was off duty setting on a cot reading a book when the roar of a jet taking off went suddenly silent. Something was different and everyone took notice and we quickly got up and looked toward the airfield. There it was, a fully loaded F4 Phantom laden with bombs and fuel had flamed out on takeoff. It was losing altitude quickly and headed in our direction. If the pilot elected to bank left, the ammo dump, straight ahead, us, so he banked his plane hard right and both the pilot and weapons officer ejected. The plane crashed about 1000 feet from where we were at. The crash was enormous and we could all feel the heat from the massive explosion. I couldn't believe it, I almost died in my first week in Vietnam and from our side no less. That was too close.
Chulai was fairly quiet and not much action where we were at. Once a week a contingent of four or five Amtraks would proceed south down the beach about four miles to a small village where we treated the locals for any medical or dental needs. On one of the trips I asked the crew chief if I could drive the Amtrak. No problem, he said. We were on a flat, smooth sandy beach and all I had to do was keep it straight down the beach. And I did. Actually, I got pretty good at driving and the Marines thought it funny that Doc was at the controls.
I was promoted to E4 (Third Class Petty Officer) in October and was assigned to travel to DaNang to the 3rd MAF Headquarters for a four week Vietnamese language school in December. I managed to struggle through the class. What a waste of time. I got back to my Battalion in Chulai and was given new orders.
3rd Amtrak "A" Company was assigned to support 1st Amtrak Battalion which was located in the foothills west of DaNang. The Corpsman attached to our "A" Company had served his time and was going home. Being the junior petty officer, I was to replace him.
I arrived in DaNang in the middle of January '67 and quickly settled in and bunked with the com guys. I would hold sick call every morning for our company and make sure that once a week everyone got their malaria pills and pull an occasional overnight duty at the aid station. I would go out in the field with our amtraks on various missions and would get into DaNang proper once in a while for supplies, etc. Some of our "A" company amtraks were supporting grunt units south of DaNang and I would have to catch a helicopter out to their position to make sure everyone was up on their shots and see to any other medical need they had.
I got to know my Marines really well and became good friends with most. The top sergeant always called me "squid" and I think I was one of few E4's that he allowed to call him "Top". It was good duty and a lot more activity and field work than Chulai.
Sometime in February, we had an emergency call out of about 30 amtraks and met up with the grunts and traveled about 10 miles to a location where intelligence thought that a large number of VC would be coming through that night. I remember when we arrived there was a large berm of earth that ran about a quarter of a mile. All the grunts and us ‘amtrakers’ took position on one side of berm. It was dark, cold, raining, and when you're lying in the mud, even a poncho won't keep you dry or warm. We were all miserable and we laid there for several hours during which time an Air Force F101 Vodoo flew low and slow and took pictures of our position. We finally got the word to load up and went home. No VC. The irony of this is that if you remember me earlier stating the reason I joined the Navy was to get out of the draft and the Army because I couldn't picture myself in the middle of a gun battle, huddled up in a hole in the ground, raining, wet and cold. There was no gun battle but the rest came true. How ironic.
In mid-June we were mustered and told to prepare for Operation Arizona which would entail an 8 day sweep in Dai Loc and Duc Duc districts of Quang Nam Province, south of DaNang, beginning the next morning, the 14th of June. It was a joint operation with about 100 amphibious tractors from "A" Company 3rd Traks, "A" and "B" Company 1st tracks, grunts from 2nd Battalion 5th Marines, 2nd and 3rd Battalion 7th Marines and 3rd Battalion 11th Marines.
The first couple of days we met with small arms fire that was quickly silenced. On the third day the column stopped for a rest and after about twenty minutes our Lieutenant approached me a said that a small group of amtraks detached from our group that had come under fire from small arms and recoilless rifles and had suffered casualties and there was no Corpsman with them. They were located about a half mile off our left flank across a dried up rice patty in a treed area. We could barely make out their location but I grabbed my medical gear of began a long run to their location. My entire run was out in the open exposed to enemy fire but I got to them ok but exhausted from the run. There were three amtraks with grunts that had been ambushed from the treed area with one amtrak out of service with a recoilless rifle round into the engine. Several Marines had been wounded the worst being a severe wound to the upper arm. He had lost a lot of blood so I started a plasma IV and tried to stop the bleeding. Eventually he was airlifted out. I've always wondered if he made it.
I made it back to my column of amtraks about two hours later. I was tired, muddy, and had blood from my finger tips to my upper arms. A couple of Marines helped me clean up by pouring water over my arms.
The next day after traveling several more miles south we came to a large clearing and the column of amtraks stopped for a breather and to grab something to eat. At this time I had no idea where we were except a long way from home. I lowered the ramp of the amtrak that I was on and decided to field strip my 45 auto. It was terribly hot so I took my flak jacket off for comfort. I was crouching on the ramp facing into the amtrak when I heard an explosion behind me and immediately turned my head to see what was going on when another explosion went off about 40 feet directly behind me. I can remember watching the shrapnel flying past my head and hot metal hitting my back. The force of the blast wasn't severe but enough to push me into the amtrak. It was probably the blast and my attempt to get out of its way that caused me to bounce off a few hard objects inside the amtrak. I think that hurt worse than the explosion. As it turned out, the VC had shot off two mortars with the first one doing nothing but the second one found me. How funny, 500 Marines and Corpsman and I was the only one wounded. A grunt Corpsman came over and pulled a few pieces of shrapnel out of my back and dressed my wounds.
Fortunately, my wounds were superficial. The Gunny asked if I wanted to go back to our Battalion but I asked if I could stay and he agreed.
It was a day or two later I was with a group of about ten amtraks when we were traveling through a small village when we began to get a lot of small arms fire and quickly pulled our amtraks about a half mile away and regrouped. Our lieutenant called in artillery and we shortly heard the sound of a round overhead. The artillery were firing directly over our heads and the first rounds fell short and landed very close to our position. Anyone who wasn't inside an amtrak rolled underneath one and hugged the ground. Large pieces of artillery shrapnel fell all around us. Fortunately, no one was injured. I kept a large piece for a souvenir but over the years it's disappeared.
The biggest gunfight we had was right after the artillery incident. A group of about six amtraks continued on and found a high knoll and took up a defensive position because we were still receiving fire. As it turned out, we flushed out four VC from an underground tunnel complex, they took off running from the knoll across a dried up rice paddy trying to get to another knoll. By the time we got set up they had gained a lot ground. I was alone atop my amtrak so I took up position at the 30 caliber machine gun that was mounted in a bed of sandbags at the front of amtrak. Other Marines started firing their M14's and I began firing the 30 cal. We killed three of the VC and a fourth one that had got stuck in the tunnel. During the gunfight one of our drivers was killed by what we suspect was from the guy in the tunnel. We also had a few others wounded from gunfire. I was the only Corpsman there, so I kept busy.
After the dust settled a medivac helicopter was called in and landed close to our location to take out the wounded. We began loading with the help of the medivac Corpsman. He and I were loading the last of the wounded when we began receiving fire again and he went down from a gunshot. My adrenalin was pumping hard and all I could think of was to get the downed Corpsman back on his chopper so that they could leave. I picked him up and with the help of someone on board we got him on. I ran back to our amtraks and took cover. We still received fire for some time and returned fire but eventually the shooters disappeared into the brush.
After a few more days we made it back to our Battalion area. I was in the first group that arrived and can remember dragging myself and my gear back to my company area. I looked like a bum and smelled like one. As a matter of fact, we all did. As I approached the compound the Top Sergeant saw me coming and couldn't believe his eyes. Not because I looked bad, but because he had heard that Doc Stump had been severely wounded and medivaced out and was hanging on by a thread. Anyway, there I was, still walking. Operation Arizona was over.
In July I spent two weeks in Hong Kong for my R&R with my Marine friends. We had a good time and to my surprise the place was full of Brits. Who knew…Hey, I was only 20.
My short timer's chain made up of beer can pull tabs was getting shorter and shorter and finally there were none left. It was September 1967. I'd put in my thirteen months and it was time to go home. I said my goodbyes to my buddy Marines, which was difficult. We had been through a lot, but everyone knew that we would all leave eventually. Hopefully standing and not in a body bag. I boarded a commercial flight in DaNang and after thirteen hours in the air we landed at El Toro Naval Air Base. Five of us hired a taxi and it took us all the way to the gate of the Long Beach Naval Base and reported in. After I got some leave papers and some money I caught a flight to Vegas to see my family. I returned to Long Beach and in a couple of days and received my separation papers.
I reported back to my Reserve Center and began drilling again. They were in desperate need of prior active duty experienced petty officers to help with the new recruits.
One day in November I got a call from the Commanding Officer of the Reserve Center. He wanted me to come to his office which I did the next day. When I arrived he showed me a citation for the Bronze Star medal with combat "V" with my name on it. It took me by total surprise. I had no idea what it was for. I felt somewhat embarrassed. After reading the citation I realized that it was depicting the events at the knoll and the medivac helicopter incident. I was still a little confused. I hadn't done anything special or what anyone else would have done. I did what I had been trained to do, keep my Marines alive.
Apparently someone thought differently. It turned out that my Lieutenant had put me in for the medal after I had left. For many years I didn't feel worthy of the honor and it really did bother me. It wasn't until I could talk about my time in Vietnam, which took about twenty five years, that I decided to proudly wear my Purple Heart , Bronze Star, and the rest of my medals, not for me but for all those who died and served in Nam. It's for them, and always will be.
I was presented the medal at the next drill night. And, of course, they made a big deal out it.
There were countless other incidents, both funny and not so funny about my time in Nam that I could tell you about. But I won't. I've said enough. Vietnam was but a short time in my life, and a long time ago, but it's probably been one of the most influential. Like I said, it took me twenty five years to talk about that time in my life to any detail. I was then, and even now, angry with how the war was conducted by our politicians, how it was micro managed, how 58,220 lives were needlessly lost, by the way we left and how we were treated when we came home.
Whether you were Army, Navy, Marine, Air Force, Coast Guard, National Guard, or civilian, if you were there and served, you have my respect and gratitude. But, of course, I will always have a special place in my heart for my "Marines" and foremost for everyone that paid the ultimate price. The Marine Corps lost 14,844, the Army lost 38,244, the Navy lost 2,559, the Air Force lost 2,586 and the Coast Guard lost 7.
I also give a special "thank you" to all my fellow FMF Corpsmen who served in Vietnam. 638 were killed in action and 4,563 earned the Purple Heart. 4 earned the Medal of Honor, 30 earned the Navy Cross, 127 earned the Silver Star and 290 earned the Bronze Star. I'm proud that I was part of it all, albeit a small part.
Clark County Fire Department
I got back to Vegas in September '67 and as I said, returned to my Reserve Unit. I got a job at Sears selling men's ware but got laid off the day after Christmas. Two weeks later I was hired at an air conditioning wholesale supplier. A few months later I put my application in at Western Airlines at McCarron airport and was hired and worked the ramp, airfreight, and also weight and balance. About a year later a friend of mine who worked for the Clark County Fire Department told me that they were hiring and suggested that I take the entrance exam.
I had never considered becoming a fireman, but knew that the work would be steady, so I took the entrance exam, which consisted of a written and oral test, with eleven other guys and as it turned out, I placed first on the hire list. I got a call a couple of days after the exam and they wanted to hire me. There was a rookie school in progress at the time and one of the cadets was let go after three weeks of training and they needed a replacement. I showed up for school on the 24th of July, 1969, in the middle of an ongoing class. I was three weeks behind, so I had to catch up and keep up, which I did. So began a career of thirty years.
The Clark County Fire Department is one of four Departments in the Las Vegas metro area. The city of Las Vegas has their own Department along with the cities of North Las Vegas and Henderson. Most people don't realize that all of the strip hotels are in the county along with most of what people call Las Vegas. It's by far the largest of the four and currently has 43 stations throughout the county.
My first duty assignment was station 14 on East Desert Inn Rd. The engine was a 1954 Seagraves conventional cab. Our crew consisted of a Captain, Engineer (driver), and four fireman. I can still picture the four of us hanging off the rear of that truck screaming down the road running code three with lights and siren. OSHA would have a fit if they did that now.
My first fire was an old abandoned whore house out in the middle of the boonies. It was just an old broken down building that would be occupied by bums occasionally and was probably set by them.
My first year as a rookie was not that pleasant. My assignments included cleaning all the heads, do all the cooking including the grocery shopping, wash and dry all the dishes after each meal just as a start. I had to memorize all the roads and streets in our first in district and help the engineer keep the engine spotless. Any dirty job that came along was mine. After about six months the other firefighters began to draw cards to see who would assist me with the dishes and about three months later they let me draw a card. That ended quickly when I drew a high card and got out of dishes altogether.
I made it through my rookie year unscathed, barely, so the rest was all downhill. I was promoted to Engineer in October 1975 and Fire Captain in September 1980. I had the opportunity to work as an acting Battalion Chief on many occasions but never pursued to take the Battalion Chief's test for promotion. I felt very comfortable as a Fire Captain and besides, that's where the most action was. fifteen of my nineteen years as a Captain was spent at station 15 on engine 15 which was the busiest engine company in the state. Our call volume per 24 hour shift was twelve to twenty calls. We were busy.
I've estimate that I had approximately 25,000 to 30,000 calls in my fire career. For most departments, especially large ones, 80% of their calls are EMS (emergency medical services) and the remainder were mostly fire calls. Unless you've been there and done it, you can't imagine the diversity of calls a firefighter will confront. From a simple dumpster fire to delivering a baby to a heart attack victim or to a high rise fire. I've fought countless building fires from arson to accidental usually caused by stupid people doing stupid things. When you work with the public, as firefighters do, you're consistently amazed at the morons that walk the earth. People that wake you and your crew up at three am for a stubbed toe or someone who feels ill with a cold that they've had for a week and expect you to make it all better.
The call I remember the best for "morons walking the earth" and one which would qualify for the Darwin Awards is one that I still laugh at and shake my head. It happened in the mid 90's. I was working station 15. A guy got off work at one of the hotels around midnight and noticed that his car was leaking gasoline in the employee parking lot. He called a for a tow and had his car towed to the apartment complex where he lived and had the tow driver place it in his assigned parking area. So far so good! He then gets the bright idea to check where the leak was coming from. He didn't have a flashlight but he had a candle and a match. I know what you're thinking, keep reading. Remember, it's just past midnight and dark, so he takes his lit candle, crawls under his car to find the leak and bam. The gasoline ignites setting his car on fire. He scrambles out with only singed hair. We get the call as a vehicle fire. No problem, we've put out hundreds. When we arrived at the apartments we knew that the parking area was at the very back end and could see smoke from the street. As we approached the back I knew that this was more than just one car on fire. The fire had spread to four other vehicles which were fully evolved including the overhead canopy. I called for another engine company for help and had my crew lay lines. With the help of the other engine, we knocked the fires down and began overhaul. I soon found the guy on a curb with his head in his hands and he began to tell me his story. I just stood there in unbelief that someone could be that stupid. One of our fire investigators, a close friend of mine, also responded and when he arrived I told him he wasn't going to believe what happened. I just told him to talk to the guy on the curb. We both had a good laugh later.
Another Darwin Award call is when a guy decided to disassemble his motorcycle in the middle of his apartment living room and proceeded to clean the parts with gasoline on the kitchen counter next to the gas stove with a lit pilot light. Need I say more? The fire was extinguished quickly, didn't spread and no one was injured.
Like I have told many people, just when you think you've seen it all, wait until tomorrow. Nothing surprises me anymore.
In 1973 I was working rescue 18 when my partner and I got a call to the International Hotel to check out the smell of smoke in Elvis Presley's dressing room. The hotel asked that we wouldn't send a full response so our Battalion chief just had the rescue check it out. As it turned out it was a coffee pot left on the burner and created an odor. What was cool is that I got to see the dressing room. It was big as most houses with several rooms one of which was where he kept his white sequined costumes. There were probably at least twenty all hanging in a row.
Unfortunately, Elvis was not there. Elvis had left the room.
November 21st, 1980 is a date that I will never forget…the MGM Grand Hotel fire. My wife Edress and I had only been married about three weeks and we had planned to meet for breakfast that morning when I got off work. I was on Engine 15 and had gotten up about six am, showered, shaved, put on some fufu and was ready to be relieved by the next shift Captain. It was about ten after seven and I was having a cup of coffee when the alarm tones started coming over the speakers. We knew immediately that we were a second alarm and they were also dispatching an additional third alarm to the MGM Grand. A first alarm consisted of three engines, a truck company, a rescue, a hose wagon, and the Battalion Chief. A second alarm doubles everything and a third alarm triples everything, etc.
My engine and Truck 15 pulled out of the station and turned left onto Valley View Road and made a left at the intersection onto Desert Inn Road. We were headed toward the strip and to our amazement we saw what looked like a mushroom cloud from an atom bomb. We knew that we had a hell of a fire ahead of us. We were the fifth engine to arrive and assigned to the front of the hotel at the portico, lay heavy lines down and set up a defensive position. The closest hydrant was just off the outer corner of one of the portico pillars and I decided to hook up there and pull our hoses from that position. Just as my crew were connecting to the hydrant the fire broke through the main doors, traveled up to the ceiling of the portico and raced across the entire one hundred and fifty feet of overhang in seconds. I ordered my crew to disconnect and quickly backed the engine out. If we hadn't acted quickly, we would have lost our engine.
We were reassigned to assist Truck 15 with evacuation. They were set up on the Flamingo Road side with their ladder extended to about the fifth floor where there was a balcony off of a room. Guests on that floor were being directed to that room and were climbing down the ladder. We would clear one floor and extend and ride the ladder up to the next floor to the balcony. We continued to evacuate people over the next two hours.
The majority of the fire was in the casino area which was several thousand square feet and was the largest casino in the world. The fire started in an electrical sun panel box next to the deli. It had been smoldering for some time and flames eventually broke out and continued into the casino. The fire consumed everything and it was estimated that it raced across the casino ceiling at eighteen feet per second. When it reached the front portico it came through the doors with a rage. The entire casino area was totally destroyed.
We lost 85 people that day. Less than a half dozen were burn related. The rest died from smoke inhalation and were found either in their rooms or in the elevators. The elevators acted like chimneys with the smoke reaching the highest floor and banking down to the floors below. The last three or four hours of the ordeal was carrying the dead to the roof of the hotel which would serve as a temporary morgue. Several firefighters were injured, but not seriously, some from falling broken glass.
Major high rise fires are rare and the fire was being broadcast on national news as it happened. Surprisingly, several chief officers from out of state departments flew into Vegas to witness the event and possibly learn from it. The MGM fire was the catalyst that transformed the fire codes in Nevada and across the country. Nevada has some of the most strict fire codes in the nation, in particular, sprinkler systems. So much so, that a sprinkler head is required even in a shower, if it's big enough.
We evacuated over 5000 people from the hotel. That in itself was a miracle. We had all but two stations on scene. The Las Vegas Fire Department along with North Las Vegas and Henderson stations also responded. My crew and I were eventually relieved about six pm.
Nevada Test Site
in 1984 I had an opportunity to attend a first responder class on nuclear accidents. It would be a three day class at the Nevada Test Site where the government tested and set off hundreds of nuclear devises. The area is north of Las Vegas off of US 93 and is very restricted and you won't get through the main gate without prior approval.
Once through the gate we traveled about 20 miles until we arrived at one of the research areas which consisted of several buildings.
The training consisted of classroom and field work. One of our scenarios was to detect and locate a high radiation source using a Geiger counter. The radiation source was placed within a 50 foot square grid and we had to take several readings at different positions on the grid and record our readings. The goal was to find the source. It was eerie watching the needle peg out on the monitor. One thing the instructors drilled into our heads, was "time, distance, and shielding". I didn't end up glowing in the dark. We also had tours of some of the first above ground atomic test sites where they filmed how buildings of different construction would be affected. We saw the remains of the destruction and also saw dozens and dozens of sites from underground tests evidenced by the large circle of depressed earth that had collapsed during the test. We got to witness a lot of interesting things that most people will never have the opportunity to see. We didn't know it, but Area 51 was just over the mountain to the east. I'm sorry to say that I wasn't abducted and didn't see any UFO's.
Perhaps the most destructive fire scene that I was on happened on May 4th, 1988. It was the PEPCON fire and explosion. I wasn't on duty when the incident happened, but I was there the next day. I can honestly say that the aftermath looked like Hiroshima after the atom bomb.
PEPCON was a large industrial complex on the south end of the valley in the county adjacent to Henderson. It produced ammonia perchlorate which is an oxidizer for the solid rocket boosters that NASA used including the ones for the space shuttle. There is still no official statement for the cause, but best estimate was a leak in a large natural gas main. A fire started inside the complex and quickly spread to other areas resulting in two explosions. The second explosion, according to experts, compared to one kiloton of TNT. The shock wave was felt up to ten miles away with damage to windows, doors, etc. and even buffeted a 737 on final approach to McCarran Airport. A work crew repairing television towers on top of Black Mt. south of Henderson video recorded the incident. It's on You Tube. Check it out.
The owner of the company was killed and his body was never found. Another man was killed when the shock wave hit and overturned his car on a highway about a mile from the blast. Hundreds of other people were injured; mostly from flying debris.
I was in court twice during my career. The first involved an EMS call on a guy that had been beaten by security guards at the Golden Nugget Hotel in downtown Vegas. We responded to his apartment and treated his injuries, returned to the station, and a report was generated for the call. As it turned out, he later filed a law suit against the hotel and since I was the officer in charge and my name on the report, I was subpoenaed to testify. Other than stating what I witnessed concerning his injuries and how we treated him and what was said, there was not much else to tell. The hotel settled out of court.
The second time was a little more serious. We got a call that there had been an explosion with injuries at a small manufacturing company and a full alarm was dispatched. We were first on scene and when we arrived we found an employee with severe burns lying on the pavement being helped by others and smoke coming from an open overhead door to the building. I had a paramedic on board the engine and he and another firefighter tended to the burn victim. I had my engineer position the engine and myself and the other firefighter pulled hose and began to extinguish a small fire inside the building.
An ambulance was quickly on scene and they assisted with the burn victim and immediately loaded him and proceeded to the hospital. He was operating a fork lift and noticed that the engine had become extremely hot at which time he shut it down and notice a hissing sound coming from the gasoline fuel cap. The fuel tank also had become overheated creating excessive pressure in the tank. Not thinking, he loosened the latch to the cap, out spewed raw gasoline engulfing him and the fork lift in flames. It also started the fire inside the building. The guy died from his burns and a civil lawsuit ensued. Again, I went to court and testified on what I saw and did. It was still in litigation when I retired.
Station 15 is located in a heavy populated area with single family homes and dozens of large apartment complexes. I didn't mind all the house fires but dreaded the apartment fires because it would always involve several apartment units or even several buildings. It was always at least a second alarm call lasting several hours including extinguishment, overhaul, etc. We all knew that it was going to be hard fight with a tough offensive approach, many times taking chances that we probably shouldn't have. But good training always paid off and I was fortunate to have an exceptional crew. I can't count all the apartment fires I responded to. I don't miss them at all.
The day finally came and I was ready to go. I was tired of the calls, the lack of sleep, and had become somewhat cynical. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed my career and was happy that I could serve the public. What I would miss the most was all the guys and gals that I worked with. I would miss the station life and our camaraderie and how we would always watch each other's back.
Edress and I had bought some property in northern Idaho near the town of Sandpoint. I moved Edress there in May of 1999 and I would commute back and forth between Vegas and Idaho working some shifts and burning unused sick leave that I would lose if I didn't use it. The morning of July 2nd, 1999, I packed up my car and said my goodbyes to my crew. It was very difficult. I had an excelled crew who were very loyal who I had worked with for some time. It reminded me of when I left Vietnam.
As I headed north on I15 out of Vegas, I looked back on the city I had called home for 51 years and tears came to my eyes. A lot of history was behind me disappearing in the distance. I also felt an immense release of pressure and stress. It was as if a huge weight was lifted from my shoulders. I was no longer responsible for keeping the public and my crew safe and all the other duties of a Fire Captain. Another strange feeling was that I was no longer employed. I called my sister who lived in Nampa Idaho where I would stop on my way up to Sand Point and told her to expect her unemployed brother. It was over; I had a good 30 year run.
So that's my story, or at least a part of it. This year Edress and I will celebrate our 36th anniversary together. She's been the light of my life for all those years and I honestly think that I would not be alive if not for her. I love my God, I love my wife, I love my family and I love my country. God bless America.