Ore. Firefighters Leave Legacy of Bravery, Fellowship

They were outdoorsmen, athletes and handymen. They were extroverted, reserved and carefree.

Some were pious and all were fathers, but the three Coos Bay firefighters who died in a blaze that destroyed the Farwest Truck & Auto Supply in downtown Coos Bay on Monday are being most remembered now for bravery and selflessness.

Lt. Randall E. Carpenter and volunteer firefighters Jeffery E. Common and R. Chuck Hanners lost their lives in Oregon's worst single fire-fighting tragedy, sending shocks through Bay Area communities. Together, the men were tied by the brotherhood and camaraderie of the Coos Bay Fire Department, but apart, they were cherished for their unique personalities, characteristics and differences.

Two weeks from his 47th birthday, Carpenter was the oldest and most experienced of the three firefighters. With more than 20 years of fighting fires, including 13 in Coos Bay, Carpenter was a senior man among the career people in the 18-person fire department.

"In my mind, he was the guy covering his crew when they most needed him," said Carpenter's cousin, Coos Bay City Councilor Roger Gould. "He was following them, protecting their backs. That would be Randy."

His hands trembled as he sat and talked, Gould remembered the childhood athlete, naturally good at every sport and then the man who became good at fixing just about everything.

Gould described his cousin as a strong, stocky man, affable and approachable by the nature of his wide smile. The two had their differences, with one cousin sitting on a budget-strapped council while the other cousin was a union advocate, but Gould said politics never deterred Carpenter's enthusiasm for being a firefighter.

"He was an extraordinarily hard-working man," Gould said.

In 1989, Carpenter moved to Coos Bay from Baker with his now former wife and his two daughters who are now grown. He entered firefighting, following in his father's footsteps. Wayne Carpenter had for years been a volunteer in Baker and Randall Carpenter got his start volunteering as well, but it was in Coos Bay that he made fighting fires his career.

Multi-talented with plenty to offer, Carpenter could be counted on to share his knowledge teaching fire safety to others or fighting fires with trained department staff. Gould said Carpenter found little time to spare for anything else.

"His family defined him. His job defined him because that was all encompassing to him," Gould said.

Gripped by his own grief and awaiting surviving family members to gather at his Coos Bay home, Gould found it ironic that it was only Tuesday when he realized his own neighbor was another of the fallen firefighters: Jeffery Common.

At 30, Common already had eight years experience as a volunteer firefighter.

He served initially with the North Bend Fire Department and three years ago began working as a volunteer in Coos Bay.

"Public service, giving to the community, gives you a good feeling but obviously not when this happens," said friend Hank Parrott, a volunteer with the North Bay Rural Fire Protection District who began his fire-fighting career alongside Common in North Bend.

Common was a mentor, a teacher and someone who helped him learn basic firefighting at North Bend, said Parrott, who works as a registered nurse. He was a fun-loving friend who cared deeply about the community. He was the father of a 3-year-old daughter and twin 2-year-old boys and volunteered time away from his job as a tug boat captain for Coos Bay Towboat, to help protect the area from fire.

"He's just a good person, a good dad, a good firefighter, a good tug boat captain," said longtime friend John Breuer III. "He could make you laugh in any situation. He's always a fun guy who knew everybody in town."

Breuer, a superintendent at Jones Stevedoring, kept in constant work contact with Common but also went to high school with him, calling him his closest friend.

A North Bend High School graduate, Common had been a part of the school's Gearheads, the high school's automotive group, and also a member of the swim team. He grew into an avid outdoorsman who enjoyed crabbing, duck hunting, deer hunting and four-wheeling in the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area and also into a kind friend who would go out of his way to help others.

"He'd do anything for you. If it was 2 a.m. and you had a breakdown, wherever you're at, he'd come and get you," said Breuer.

R. Chuck Hanners was a private, soft-spoken man who volunteered at Coos Bay for eight years, although he had a total of 13 years experience as a firefighter. At 33, Hanners and his wife were raising six children ranging in age from 5 to 17: one girl and five boys.

His uniqueness was undisputed at the department.

"You have to be a special person to have that number of kids," said Fire Chief Stan Gibson, reminiscing of the numerous community activities in which Hanners was involved outside of his job at Wal-Mart.

Deeply religious, Hanners was a regular at Sunday services at the Church of the Nazarene in Coos Bay. Pastor Ron Halverson, who met Hanners about a year ago, formed immediate impressions of the man who appeared to walk through life with a gentle touch.

"Even in the midst of challenges, growing pains if you will, that individual family members had, Chuck was just very gentle, it would seem, about how he would problem-solve," Halverson said.

A patient person who gave his and the family's time to helping with church activities like Bible quizzing or Christmas dinners, Halverson said he was impressed by how much respect Hanners garnered from his children.

"It gives a rare glimpse of what families used to be like, that they aren't like today," Halverson said. "They did things together. They were a close family unit."

The gentle man remembered by Halverson, though, also was a Coos Bay firefighter who volunteered to join others and walk into danger and entered the ranks of that tight-knit family, as well.

Together, the three men were among the first responders to a downtown Coos Bay fire that demolished a warehouse Monday afternoon. Hanners, who was found at the bottom of a stairway by fellow firefighters and dragged from the burning building, died after being taken to Bay Area Hospital.

Firefighters weren't able to reach Carpenter and Common. Their bodies were found after the building cooled, in an upstairs mezzanine where the fire reportedly began. Draped in American flags, Carpenter and Common were removed ceremoniously late Monday night, taken out by battle-worn firefighters.

Among many of the families and comrades who watched as the bodies were loaded onto awaiting ambulances was Gould, who repeatedly returned to the burning building throughout Monday to watch for progress and hear news of the then-missing firefighters.

"I just had to be there when they brought out his body," Gould said "How could you not be there? How could you not go to say goodbye?"

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