Los Angeles Fire Department
Historical Archive

In Memory of
Fireman Ross G. Sechrist
Engine Company No. 31
Appointed September 6, 1911
Died December 24, 1926
Electrocuted when his helmet eagle touched
 an energized wire roof of a chicken coop.
1337 West 58th Place

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Ross Sechrist

By Bob Patterson

RAINS were riding the heaving back of a mid-December gale. For days on end they had hurled their cold droplets along the raceways of high tension lines in prelude to Christmas and deep winter. High wires in the southwestern districts of Los Angeles had been undergoing the insulation-wearing beating of heavy weather and power company trucks were on alert patrol in anticipation of trouble. In the thirteen hundred block on Fifty-eight place Mrs. Emogene Hunter raised startled eyes from her book as a loud report not unlike that of a heavy calibre rifle sounded high above the whirl of the storm. Through the streaming wetness of the window pane she saw a vivid flash as the center wire of the topmost group that ran along the rear of her property line snapped in two and twisted its spitting descent down through the air. One end lit in her own yard and hopped over the wet ground like a decapitated snake, spitting a white hot venom more poisonous than any reptile. The other fell on the wire mesh of her neighbor's chicken coop, searing the supporting wood frame until flames began fighting upward through the raindrops. Mrs. Hunter hesitated but a moment before she turned to dial the fire department in notification of the danger. A few blocks distant, near the corner of Slauson avenue and Estrella, a man poked his head momentarily into the outside storm and yelled a message toward an adjoining house:
  "Hurry up with lunch, honey, I'm getting hungry!"

  The man's big hand ran through his hair in an effort to brush off the drops of rain as he straightened and closed the window of the engine house. This was Ross Sechrist, a veteran fire fighter of fifteen years' service, a six-foot-two member of Engine 31s triple combination crew who, because of his height, was carrying the burden of the nick-name "Highpockets." He was one of the few firemen who were lucky enough to live next door to their stations, which enabled him to have his meals at home and to always be within call of his family in event of trouble. He had just this morning killed a rabbit which his wife was now preparing for lunch and it had been to her that his call was directed. Their's had been a normally happy life together and was now more or less visionarily pleasurable in future aspect because of a strong rumor that the company of Sears and Roebuck was about to construct a large department store in the district which would skyrocket the value of their property. This was the principal topic of Sechrist's conversation when he wasn't busy rolling some of the "big ones" for which he was noted. He took a long look out the window. Sheets of rain were still splashing against the glass in an unpleasant display of what they could do to the polished fire rig and equipment should an alarm make it necessary to take them outdoors. The hours of drying the apparatus with chamois and sponge on their return from such an alarm made Ross sneak another look at the clock on his way to the kitchen. Eleven-five. It was getting near the---.

  His thoughts were cut off by shrill loudness, a long ring from the alarm panel--Damn! There went the rabbit dinner and a nice dry set of turnouts. He whirled and started for his place on the rig as the rest of the crew thundered out of the kitchen gulping down their last bites of lunch. He heard Captain Ryniker give the location at 1337 West Fifty-eight place as Charlie Myers Jumped into position beside him

Taken but a short while before the call which brought about his death, Ross Sechrist stands
at the right of the picture, leaning upon the truck which he ride to the scene of his death

on the right rear portion of the apparatus. As the heavy rig's frame trembled to the roar of the motor and gathered speed through the doors into the storm, Sechrist pulled his high metal helmet down in place and felt the uncomfortable chill of cold metal on his forehead where the insulation had begun to wear from the brim.

  The speed of the apparatus was necessarily slow and the men riding the tailboard found it advisable to ride low behind the protection of the hose folds. Their turnout coats were snapped to the highest fold but then rain still managed to whip in around their necks and it was a welcomed relief when the rig finally reached the location and rolled to a stop. Lieutenant Ray Snyder and the Captain immediately moved to analyze the situation with Sechrist, Myers and Akes close behind.

  The conditions were evident at a glance. Very little fire, due to the thorough wetness of all combustible materials, but a very vigorous attempt to start a good one on the part of the charged wire which lay twitching atop the wire and wood of a chicken coop. Suspected, though not as yet evident, was the fact that every material substance in the vicinity of the cages was charged to the hilt with a tremendous jolt of voltage. The heaviest charge, it was later found, ran along the exposed portion of wire mesh top into a supporting clothes-line post cable and finally into the clothes-line itself. So heavily laden were these lines with the stored energy of groundless electricity that small arcs were noted jumping small gaps from wire to wet wood. The ground below, being worn by the shuffling feet of many washdays, formed a natural pool of rain water and presented the best conditions possible for electrocution should a human body chance to complete the unholy circuit. Lieutenant Snyder stooped to pass under.

  Ross Sechrist advanced at the rear of the group and witnessed his superior clear the wire with inches to spare. The second man to pass was Akes and finally Myers, all without suspicion other than the natural caution of seasoned fire fighters. Having observed the actions of his brothers Sechrist was anything but hesitant in following their example. Perhaps "Highpockets" wore his fire helmet a trifle jauntily--perhaps the natural spring in his walk raised his body a fraction of an inch too high--but more probably it was due to the height of his frame which earned him his nickname, that the golden eagle which rode so highly in his fifteen years of service chanced to foul the voltage crammed wire.

  The spitting crackle of suddenly released electrons spun the crew around in alarm. Sechrist's body was arcing the circuit to a ground and an acrid swirl of smoke appeared from beneath his helmet to disappear in the wind driven rain. His body stiffened and fell forward, face down, as his buddies ran to his aid. They lifted his stiff form and carried it to the shelter of a nearby porch where respiration was immediately begun. The fire was now of secondary importance, being subsequently extinguished by means of a water gun while ambulance and emergency repair crews were being called to the spot.

  Within a half hour the vicinity was host to both the police and fire department rescue squads, the Los Angeles Gas and Electric Corporation's safety car, the trouble crew of the Bureau of Power and Light, an attending M.D., a receiving hospital ambulance, chief officer's cars and company apparatus and a myriad of helpful rain soaked neighbors, all doing their best to lend a hand for Ross Sechrist's welfare. All through that long wet afternoon the men and doctors worked over the body of Sechrist and when the hands of the watch on the rescue officer's sweating wrist pointed finally to 3 p.m., the victim was pronounced dead by electrocution. Hope, throughout the entire respiration activities, had been very slim due to the round deep hole in Schist's forehead which penetrated to his brain. This was due to the tremendous jolt finding its only outlet through the worn spot in the firemen's insulated helmet and which virtually burned its passage through his brain tissue, killing him almost instantly. As the crews began their sorrowful reloading of equipment in preparation for departure, the body of Ross Sechrist was solemnly covered to await removal to the establishment of Alvarez and Moore at the suggestion of the grief stricken Mrs. Sechrist.

  Fireman Sechrist was dead. Only two short days before Christmas in the year of '26, this man who had but a few years to go in completion of a fire fighter's span of duty had met his death from one of the hundreds of perils that hourly face the firemen of metropolitan areas. Many men have felt the numbing sting of fallen power lines and have walked the gauntlet of charged water, but it was not in their power to judge the death that might have awaited release through the medium of their bodies had the treacherous conditions been right. Sechrist had met a tragic fate which three men before had narrowly escaped. It wasn't a blunder, nor was it a situation rushed into by one who knew the cards were stacked against him. It was a condition faced by every man at every scene of fire, one which lies in wait with its deadly brothers from the moment the alarm panel sounds its warning until the company officer once more reports his crew safe in quarters.

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