LA County Engine 9 Honors Firefighter Killed in 1991

On the eighteenth anniversary of the fire that took the life of Fire Fighter Specialist Jim Howe, Engine Company 9 once again rolled out, this time from Fire Station 16. Howe suffered major injuries while fighting an arson fire in a commercial building in Huntington Park on January 9, 1991, when an awning section of the building collapsed on him. He died one week later at age 47. In honor of Howe's ultimate sacrifice made in the line of duty, County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and Fire Chief P. Michael Freeman officially renumbered Engine 216 - the second engine at Fire Station 16 - as Engine 9 at a special ceremony held on Friday, January 9, 2009, at the station.

Howe served as the "A" shift at Fire Station 9 from the mid 1970s until his death from injuries incurred in the line of duty during the January 9, 1991, State Incident. More than 200 people attended the ceremony, including Howe's widow, Nancy, daughters Debi and Leslie, other members of the Howe family and many Department personnel, including Howe's fellow crew members who responded to the State Incident but survived their injuries. Freeman described Howe as "the epitome of the fire service professional," and often shares tales of Howe's special brand of community service when speaking with personnel about the organization's core value of caring.

The State Incident was a two-story commercial building fire during which Howe and several other firefighters were pinned beneath a massive facade overhang just above a second floor exterior walkway which crashed down on them minutes into the fire. Fire Fighter Anthony Jefferson was one of six firefighters injured alongside Howe that evening. Jefferson, endearingly referred to as "A.J." by his peers, vividly recalled the tragic events of that day. "Howe and I were both with Station 9-A on that day," he said. "We arrived about one and a half minutes behind the first engine." Jefferson recalls that Fire Station165 had already laid down their line and that 163's was pumping it. "Our assignment was to check for extension." At that point, he says, the fire was thought to be contained to just one store in the commercial building, which housed several small stores on both floors. "We laddered the building," he said. "After confirming that the fire had spread to a second store, we alerted then-Fire Captain Emmett Kinney and we moved on to the next store down the line and breached a window."

At this point Jefferson says that he and Howe were alongside each other when an 80-foot section of the facade, estimated to weigh 1,000 pounds per foot, came crashing down over them. The massive weight of the overhead material pinned Howe, Jefferson and Fire Fighter Cesar Alvarez against the rail and the floor. The facade also pinned Kinney and then-Fire Captain Greg Jones between the breached window and the floor. Kinney and Jones were pinned right up against the fire, but their line was still charged and they were able to avoid further injury by defending themselves with their life-saving water. "I could hear Alvarez just a couple of feet away from me screaming," Jefferson recalled. "He was right up against the fire. When he was removed, the back of Alvarez's helmet was melted." Tragically, Jefferson says he never heard any sound coming from Howe, who was pinned down just inches away from him. Jefferson himself was finally extracted by the frantic work of the other County firefighters on scene. When all was said and done, Howe was located and transferred to the hospital. A hospital room vigil was ordered by Chief Freeman which lasted until Howe died. This incident and the lessons learned live on with the renumbering of Engine 9 in Howe's memory.

Howe was known throughout the Department as the "Tasmanian Devil" for his firefighting zeal and legendary performance as a public servant. He was recognized three times during his career with official commendations from the Department. He became a firefighter in 1968, after faithfully serving his country during a two-year tour of duty in the Vietnam War.

Colleagues remember his fearlessness and how he loved to emerge from a burned-out building covered in soot. While he did not emerge from the building on that fateful day, his memory will live on in this unique "rolling memorial" to his heroism and his love of the firefighting profession.