In the drizzle outside a ramshackle home on Blossom Hill Road, Fire Capt. Dennis Johnsen pointed to the place where a live 12,000-volt line electrocuted Fire Capt. Mark McCormack on Sunday morning. ``We want to do this right,'' he said of his probe.
Three miles away, in a conference room at the headquarters of the Santa Clara County Fire Department, a cadre of fire officials was planning the hundreds of details for McCormack's Saturday funeral: honor guard, bagpipes, space to park the rigs, invitations to politicians. It was quiet, methodical work that couldn't quite hide their pain.
Those two scenes summarized the crux of what faces the Santa Clara County Fire Department -- Central Fire to old-timers -- as it deals with its first on-duty fatality in its 58 years of existence. McCormack's colleagues have to investigate his death while honoring his life.
Firefighters are a different breed than other public employees. As a group, they're even tighter than cops. The reason is that they live as well as work together.
Bond of brothers
``We eat dinner with one another. We go through the same things you would with a family,'' says San Jose Fire Chief Jeff Clet, whose firefighters also fought the blaze. ``I think you wind up with a deeper bond than you would in the general workplace.''
Even firefighters who didn't know the 36-year-old McCormack -- a six-year veteran -- itch to do whatever they can. Clet says he's got a list of 50 volunteers willing to do any errand.
In older cities like Boston or San Francisco, there's a script for grief. Protocol channels the tears. But Central Fire has no precedent. A proud line of zeros marks its record for deaths on duty.
``It's unbelievable,'' says former county Fire Chief Doug Sporleder, who led the department from 1982 to 2001. ``The first thing I told my wife was that it was something that I didn't have to do, knock on a door and tell a widow that her husband was dead.''
Born in 1947 from the merger of two now-forgotten fire districts, the county department once focused on extinguishing fires caused by fruit dehydrators in rural areas.
``The firefighters would speed along the two-lane roads that criss-crossed the area,'' says an official history of the department. ``Upon approaching an intersection, they would hunker down over the dashboard and peer beneath the trees to check for cross-traffic.''
In a sense, the entire department is hunkering down now. At McCormack's home station of Sunny Oaks, firefighters talked on cell phones as the flag hung at half-staff. At the scene of the fire, the debris bore witness to a perfect storm of awful events: An upstairs fire in a house still unrepaired from a 2003 blaze melted a quarter-inch overhead wire that carried power to nearby homes. The wire fell on a pine tree outside the house, dangling three feet from the ground. In the smoke and dark, it killed a man whose interest in firefighting was spurred by a bad childhood burn.
Capt. Johnsen said firefighters were warned that there was a live wire hanging on a tree -- and that the tragedy occurred after they had been at the scene for an hour. Exactly how and why McCormack was electrocuted will be the stuff of endless training manuals.
The details don't change the enormity of the tragedy or the firefighters' need for a ceremony. ``When we bring someone on and send them out with a badge, we have an implied contract,'' says Chief Jeffrey Meston of the Novato Fire Protection district, which lost a firefighter in the 2003 Southern California blazes.
``We want them home safe. But if they don't come home safe, we want to commemorate their lives. We're doing it for every surviving firefighter, to let them know that our task is important, our service is valid, we risk our lives to save people and protect property. They need to know there's a guarantee out there.''