Los Angeles Fire Department
Historical Archive

In Memory of
Fireman Joseph W. Kacl

Truck Company 3
November 6, 1939

Joseph W. Kacl

By Bill Goss

THERE is a yawning gap on the east side of Broadway just a little ways north of Fourth street bearing mute testimony to a vicious fire that snuffed out the lives of two of the departments most gallant members. In that narrow space, 40 feet wide and some 150 feet long, once stood the Gray building until the fateful afternoon of November 6, 1939. Our story today is of Joseph Kacl who was carried to his death under an avalanche of machinery and debris when the upper floors of the fire-gutted Gray building gave way.

    Joe Kacl was appointed to the Los Angeles Fire Department on July 27, 1937 and served most of his brief career in Battalion 1 on the B platoon. Among his probationary reports, a typical one from Captain Paul Zink, Engine 5B said: "He is quick to learn, is polite and obliging and gets along well with the members of the company...a conscientious worker in quarters and at fires." At Truck 3 where he was stationed at the time of his death he was known for his good nature, usually always in on a "stir" and his great interest in athletics, for at Lincoln High School here in the city, from which he graduated, he had been a popular athlete and a football star.

    The fire in the Gray Building, 336 South Broadway, started as all big fires generally do from a seemingly inconsequential start which grew into a blaze that threatened to be of conflagration proportions and taxed the department with some ten hours of the toughest kind of fire fighting. Room 201 on the northwest corner of the building housed the L.A. Novelty Company, a concern that did dish painting and other kindred novelty work, owned by a man named Sam Trieber. Mr. Trieber put some water on a hot plate in the back part of the room and plugged the electric cord in, then left to take his dog for a walk. Shortly after an employee noticed smoke filling up the room and called the fire department and in her great excitement she gave the address as 3336 South Broadway, to which the signal office dispatched an assignment at 2 p.m. This incorrect address was later verified by the telephone company's operator as the one having been given to the dispatcher. About 2:03 p.m. persons outside the building noticed smoke pouring from the second floor and some one pulled the box at Third and Broadway.

    Over at 3s the crew of the big new 100-foot aerial truck donned their turnouts and made ready to roll as the rounds of box 1133 rang out throughout the house. When the company made the turn onto Broadway from Third street the fire looked as though there might be possibilities, but not too serious. Fireman Ben Feighley of Salvage 3 was the first man up to the second floor and there he found a man pouring water from a hoseline into the smoky interior of the novelty company. Taking the line over, Feighley advanced into the room to find the seat of the fire but the aged line broke and the heat and smoke soon drove him out. The fire spread with an unbelievable rapidity as the second floor offered little resistance. It soon became apparent that the first alarm assignment made up of Engines 3, 4, 5, 16, trucks 3, 4, salvage 3, 28, rescue 23 and Acting Chief Rothermel and acting Battalion Chief McDougall had a real job cut out for them. The smoke spreading up through the unprotected vertical openings of the 5-story building drove employees of establishments on the upper floors to the rear fire escapes where they piled up log jam fashion because the drop ladder to the ground was broken and would not lower. Heads up work by the crew of Truck 4 prevented disaster here for as they responded to the box they noticed the smoke from the fire and decided to take the building from the Spring street side. Wheeling in through a parking lot to the rear of the Gray building they quickly raised ladders to the fire escapes and removed everyone to a place of safety.

    In the front of the structure the members of Truck 3 had laddered up the front of the building under the direction of Captain Barclay, placing 35s to the fire escapes and the long aerial to the roof. The company then took a line off of Engine 3's manifold and proceeding to the second floor fire escape balcony started to bore their way into the red demon that was destroying everything in its path. By this time the fire was involving the third floor and it looked as though it wouldn't be long before the fourth would take off. At 2:18 p.m. a second alarm was transmitted, bringing Engines 24, 28, 58, Truck 19, Chief Engineer Ralph Scott, Deputy Chief Blake and Division Chief George Davlin. Shortly after engine 23 and water tower truck 24 were summoned and Chief Scott and Chief Davlin took charge of operations from the front and Chiefs Blake and Rothermel took command in the rear. By that time a huge pall of smoke hung over the entire area as the fire continued to hold its own and make headway despite the terrific amount of water that was being poured on it. On the Broadway side the big batteries of manifolds 3 and 5 as well as lines operating from the aerial pounded away at the flames and to the rear the same was being done by manifold 23 and water tower 24, all this in addition to the 15 or more hand lines in operation. Around 3:30 o'clock the fire ate its way up through the roof via the elevator shaft and for a time threatened to spread to the Trustee building to the south where the highly inflammable supplies of the NuEnamel Co. were stored. At this time the men working on lines in the rear of the building were ordered out but by then Firemen Kacl, Schumacher, Richter and Ed Dawson had worked some 56 feet back into the building on the second floor despite the heavy smoke, heat and terrific punishment in general. Kacl had just taken the nozzle over from Ed Schumacher when as though a trap door had suddenly sprung, the floor in front of Schumancer on which Kacl was standing, gave way and Joe went through to the main floor. Covered with plaster and debris and stunned by the suddenness of it all, the other three men scrambled back to a place of safety when they heard a creaking of timber that grew into a roaring crash as the fourth floor supporting the presses of the Wetzel Printing Company gave way and plunged through on top of their buddy.

    Later in the afternoon, the fire being pretty well knocked out, a gang led by Ed Dawson and "Red" Hough, Chief Blake's operator were tearing into the rubble, E.W. Jones of salvage 3 uncovered enough of Kacl's body to report that there were no signs of life, when there was a sickening rumble from overhead. The rumble developed into a roar and remaining portions of the upper floors broke away to head down toward the valiant rescuers as they made a hasty retreat. All reached a place of safety excepting Hough who was struck across the helmet by a falling plank and Jones, the last one to get away, was hit and had his legs crushed by one of the heavy timbers.

    After this near second loss of life the chief officers ordered everyone out of the structure and wetting down and overhauling was continued from exterior points of vantage. Late in the evening another attempt was made to reach Kacl's body and shortly after midnight firemen and members of the police ambulance crew were successful in extricating his body. It was removed to the coroner's chambers where a later autopsy showed that Kacl had died instantly from depressed feature of the skull and other severe internal injuries.

    Joseph Kacl was of Bohemian parentage born in Canada on December 18, 1914. He was survived by his parents, Mr. and Mrs. P. Kacl, his wife Kathryn Kacl and a son that he never saw, born several months after he was killed.

    Requiem Mass was said by Father Shear at 9 a.m. at All Saints Catholic church November 9, under the auspices of the Relief Association. Interment was at Calvary cemetery. Kacl's remains were carried to the last place of rest by his comrades of truck 3B, Captain Barclay, Auto Fireman Cooper, Firemen Dawson, Richter, Schumacher and Wood.




This article appeared in the February, 1945 issue of the Fireman's Grape Vine.

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