Los Angeles Fire Department
Historical Archive

In Memory of
Fireman Harry J. Custer
Truck Company No. 5
Appointed September 27, 1918
Died February 12, 1922
Collision with Pacific Electric streetcar.
Stanford and Ninth Street

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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.

  This was the beginning of 1922, almost two and one-half years after his date of appointment.  Lieutenant La Fon was in charge of Truck 5, with Custer assigned as a member on the opposite shift.  Tom Doran, Ralph Smith and Sam Shockley were also long to remember that fateful January morning while serving as part of the truck company's luckless crew.

  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?

  Not far ahead he began to see apparatus break around the corner from Ninth street, while other sirens sounded shrilly through the rise and fall of their own.  As the rig approached the intersection with vision limited by bordering buildings, the crew felt that common uneasiness present when your life depends on the thin wail of the siren to clean an unobstructed path through a tight spot.

  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.

Death took its toll when fast-moving interurban car crashes
into heavy aerial truck early in the morning of January 22, 1922.

  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.

  Tom Doran was pronounced near death with a serious skull fracture, while Smith and Donovan were rushed to the hospital with serious head and body injuries.  Johns and Shockley received treatment for injuries to the back and hip and were later transferred to their homes.

  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:

"Motorman Albrecht claims that he was bringing his car to a stop at the crossing at Ninth and Stanford streets, after hearing the gong of the fire engine--(at the coroner's inquest he claimed he heard no gong)--and after one engine had dashed across the tracks, he again turned on the power.  Also, that a Watts car standing at the crossing so obstructed his view that he did not see the second engine until it crossed the tracks.  And still again, that he slid his car a distance of 22 feet on the rails before striking the engine.  At the inquest, his statement was that he slid his car 70 feet, and his speed, at the time he applied his brakes was about 10 miles per hour.  He was positive, under closer questioning, his car was not exceeding 12 miles.  This was in the face of testimony concerning measurements by steel tape, that the heavy 56-foot aerial ladder truck was hurled 57 feet and was then stopped by striking a partly demolishing a hose apparatus carrying six firemen."

  "There was no Watts nor any other electric street car at the intersection on Ninth and Stanford, or within several hundred yards of that intersection at the time of the crash other than the one Albrecht was motorman of.  And, also no fire apparatus of any description crossed the tracks ahead of the ill-fated truck 5, on this particular morning, as the investigators were led to believe."

   "In addition to the above facts, the writer will state that the streets were unusually clear of traffic at the time and the heavy red car, which was so soon to exact its horrible toll, was seen by the firemen going east on Ninth street, but with the full confidence that the motorman would take in the situation and govern his car accordingly."

  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   found it.

Note:  We wish to thank Mrs. Custer for her splendid cooperation in supplying the details of her husband's death.

This article appeared in the April 1944 issue of the Firemen's Grape Vine.

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