In Memory of
Truck Company No. 5 (then assigned to Engine 23 at 4th and Town collided with
a Pacific Electric Railway Car while responding to a 7:45 a.m. fire at 940
Stanford Street. While traveling southbound on Stanford, Truck 5 entered the Ninth Street intersection, when a westbound Pacific Electric
car slammed into the apparatus just forward of Tillerman Custer's
seat. His seatbelt snapped and he was hurled headfirst to the street.
Custer died of head injuries.
By Bob Patterson
Fireman Harry Custer
THE modest, black-framed picture of Harry Custer hangs first in the long array of photographs placed on the walls of department headquarters in reverence toward those men who have met violent death on duty, and he remains one of the luckless few who have died with the sirens still sounding in their ears.
Harry had entered the fire
department during an era similar to ours of today (April, 1944). The first World War
had belched the chaos of Chateau Thierry and Balleau Woods and the department was bled of
man power it desperately needed. Custer volunteered his services and was appointed
September 27, 1918 to Engine 12 by Acting Assistant Chief R. J. Scott. Thus began a
career as a fireman that was to be unusually short-lived. Harry's character as a new
man was reported by Battalion Chief Charles Casey as a very careful and willing worker
with an unreproachable record as a fireman. Approximately one year later he
transferred to Truck Co. 7 and finally to Truck 5 where he was to ride to his death.
The rig was of the old solid wheel high-riding type with a spidery network of ladders topped by an eighty-five foot aerial. The tractor and fifth wheel arrangement proved its capacity as one of the city's larger rigs with a measured fifty-six foot length, over all. In short, a piece of apparatus that only an extremely heavy and fast-moving object could seriously harm.
Custer knew that the position of tillerman has counter-balanced its responsibility against the experience gained, for many years on the department because of the recognized intricacies of the big wheel's operation. He realized that he was accepting a position which more or less endangered his life and which made him directly answerable, in part, for the welfare of the crew. However, as this remained the position of a member possessing a little more experience than the average run of crew, he climbed aboard the high-seat for his last ride with a feeling of assurance due perhaps, to his past unblemished record.
The Fates had arranged their ironic calendar of events so that on the morning of January 22, 1922, Harry Custer was working for John Matthews, the tillerman on the opposite shift. The morning was a rather dry one for such a month, with the crisp dew almost totally absent from the streets. As one newspaper article later states. The streets were comparatively dry until the deluge of blood from the mangled forms of several firemen made them otherwise.
At exactly 7:45, Custer's last long ring sounded throughout the quarters of Engine 5. Lieutenant La Fon gave a location at 940 Stanford, and the sirens began to warm up to the engine's roar. Custer, legs straddled to clear the aerial, signaled forward and the long hook and ladder rolled out and swung into line for the run.
Harry was not yet accepted as an old-timer on the department as this was but the beginning of his third year in service. Thus it would not be supposing too much to imagine his sensation of the concealed thrill of an alarm-response that haunts the veins of every fire-fighter through his last calloused years of duty. The uncertain anticipation of danger remains in just the right proportions to the plunging race on an apparatus to create an effect that is unparalleled in any profession. Custer felt such a sensation and it served to put him on his guard so that danger might be foreseen. This time, however, caution was to serve no such purpose.
As the auto-fireman took the bend into Stanford, Custer tracked
the accepted arc and slowly edged over until the long ladder once more lined to the
tractor. From here he could see, far ahead, the approximate location of the alarm
and searched the grayed sky above it. No fire. He hunched his turnout collar
higher around the ears as cold wind whipped at his face, and tried to relax.
Glancing down at Doran brought a quick grin. Tom was still struggling with his
axe-belt and had bumped his helmet down over his nose. Had Custer but known that
these were to be last events: a last grin, a last look at a brother firefighter, what
would have been his reactions in the tragic moments to come?
Custer advertently noticed bystanders glancing alternately at the racing rig and at something to the eastward on Ninth. His uneasiness grew to alarm. He felt the apparatus tremble beneath him in a sudden drag as the driver coasted into the intersection under compression. Suddenly Custer saw Lieutenant La Fon grab at the arm of the tractor seat and yell. It was then he heard the heavy scraping of steel on steel and at the same instant saw the big Long Beach P. E. lunging forward with locked wheels, throwing a shower of sparks. The whole rig seemed to leap ahead as the auto-fireman gunned the motor to its capacity in a wild effort to pull the apparatus clear. The men riding the side had but time to throw up a shielding arm while Custer's fingers bit into the cold leather of the big wheel, praying for a break that he knew wouldn't come. He was strapped in and trapped.
The heavy, iron-bound cab-face crunched into the mass of ladders with a resounding crash that was heard far past Broadway, hitting just forward of the tiller seat and hurling the entire rig a distance of fifty-seven feet, which stopped only after slamming into Engine Nine. Crews of both rigs were torn from their position and hurled into the street. Custer's body was ripped from the safety belt and thrown to the pavement with such violence that his skull was fractured in two places and his back broken.
The terrific impact of the collision made a tangled wreck of both rigs and attracted crowds from far distant points, some of whom arrived, nevertheless, in time to view the carnage of men and equipment before the ambulances arrived. The P. E. motorman was immediately arrested by a request of the coroner on charges of manslaughter, but was later released to the custody of the Pacific Electric Council.
Harry Custer never regained consciousness, but died a few minutes
later while his wife, Mrs. Clara Custer, stood helplessly by his side.
This was the fifth wreck of its kind, involving fire apparatus and the railway companies, in a surprisingly short period of time. So it was that a hornet's nest had fallen with the death of Custer and caused a complete investigation to be held. It was due to the result of this inquiry that a very interesting and well written article appeared in a daily newspaper, composed by one who signed himself "Just a Fireman." A portion of this is printed below:
The resulting death of Harry Custer was a loss
felt keenly by all members of the department as well as his personal friends. His
was a fate to which we may all be exposed and where knowledge and experience prove quite
useless. But should fortune have extended only a suggestion of a way out--if there
had been even a mere possibility of escape--we feel confident that Custer would have
This article appeared in the April 1944 issue of the Firemen's Grape Vine.
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