A proud brotherhood
For Everett's firefighters, duty to the public is accompanied by another, more personal obligation: To serve the memory of those who came before them.
A former Everett fire station that was built in the 1920s. The station had firefighting poles that crews could slide down on their way to a call. Everett Fire Department photo.
On his first day at the firehouse, Dave Salvadalena knew he'd become part of something bigger than himself. He could feel the spirit of all the city's past firefighters rustling in the stairways.
See more photos from the history of the Everett Fire Department in our photo gallery.
Firefighters are known for their strength and courage. They don't often talk about the nature of service to others, and what it's like to save lives for a living. But ask about who came before, and what it all means, and their features soften. Old war stories. Broken hearts. The legacy.
Geraniums bloom around a memorial to firefighters at Evergreen Cemetery in Everett. Firefighters keep the plot clean and carefully landscaped. Mark Mulligan / The Herald
On the hill of old graves at Evergreen Cemetery on Broadway, there is a small plot topped by a granite square. Many of the nearby headstones are covered with moss, bordered by crumpled, broken sidewalks. Some graves date back a hundred years, some longer. The firefighters' plot shines bright against other fading markers of yellowed stone. Their graves are scrubbed clean, and a few geranium blossoms shiver in the early winter chill. To the east, morning commuters whiz down I-5. The view stretches to the Cascade Range. On some of the gravestones, the letters "E.F.D." are etched as large as the names of the dead. This is where a quiet, painful history sleeps. This is where the firefighters come to mourn. They are keepers of the memory of one of Everett's darkest days, Oct. 29, 1923.
This photo show Chief Taro's car after and accident with another fire vehicle. The chief and the fire truck collided while enroute a fire alarm. Firefighter Denny Boyle was on the fire truck and also died in the crash. From the book “The Fire Boys”
The night watchman at a mill reported flames leaping from a north Everett home. An Everett fire engine roared out of Riverside station, west down Hewitt. The fire chief was in his car, heading north.
Fire Chief William Taro (left) Lt. Denny Boyle
Everett firefighters work to control a blaze at what appears to be a mill or a warehouse in the 1950s or 1960s. Everett Fire Department photo
Everett's fire department has its own reverent tome, "Fire Boys," and the 1923 crash has its own chapter. "Fire Boys" was published in 1992. About 1,000 copies were printed. They sold fast. The book was written by Charlie Henderson, now a substitute teacher and Federal Emergency Management Agency reservist living in Everett. His wife, Teresa Henderson, works as an administrative assistant at the fire department. The Everett Firefighters Association was looking for someone to write their story, in time for the department's centennial. It's a story of ambition, industrialization and sheer Pacific Northwest pluck. In the beginning, firefighters juggled new equipment and techniques, Dilgard said. They disagreed over how many of the men should be paid and how many volunteers they'd have. Technology was primitive. Fighting fires depended on the municipal water system, which wasn't much to go on. The town's mills made for some stubborn blazes, Henderson said. Most mills were built like sheds, he said. Sawdust collected in the rafters. It took only a spark. "Those things would just become a wind-tunnel of explosions and flame," Henderson said. When a mill caught fire, the townspeople would pour out to help. Their jobs depended on the building being there the next day. "Fire Boys" describes a ragtag group of frontiersmen transforming into a professional fire department. The tale is inspirational, universal, Dilgard said. "Even someone from Hoboken could enjoy that book," he said. "It's part of America's history."
A siren is mounted on the fender on a 1949 Kenworth fire truck that was once part of the Everett Fire Department. Michael O'Leary / The Herald
On Hewitt, east of Broadway, history hides in a converted automotive-electric shop. Half of the Everett Firefighters Hall is classy event space, often rented at a discount to community groups. Generally, only firefighters can get into the other half, a warehouse where a handful of glossy old fire engines shine like hard candies. In one corner, dusty boxes of artifacts are heaped onto pallets, protected by shrouds of green plastic wrap. Old fire hoses and helmets peek out, rusted and faded brick-red. There are glass balls full of fire retardant that used to be tossed into flames. "There's all kinds of weird things," Salvadalena said. He pointed to a canvas tarp in a corner. Remember the old black-and-white cartoons with firefighters holding nets to catch people as they jumped from burning buildings? There they are. So much good stuff, but what to do with it? The hall is run by the Everett Firefighters Association, a nonprofit. The association owns most of the firefighting antiques and memorabilia. It is separate from the union, which has long been a political powerhouse in local elections. The association's leaders have a vision for all the antiques, though they also have limited resources. They dream of someday opening an Everett firefighting museum, where they can share their history. They'd like to get all the old photos framed and hung on the walls. They'd like to get glass cases for all the old engines, so they can be displayed around the city. For now, the association provides storage. With ease, Salvadalena jumps into the back of the 1967 Mack fire engine. The roof covered only half of the back seat. He pantomimes how the crews used to keep wool blankets in the rig, pulling them over their legs so the rain and snow wouldn't soak them through. It was cold and wet, but the memories are good. Sometimes, Salvadalena wonders what it was like in the old days. He loves looking at the old photos, thinking about the lives within and the generations before. He feels like he's one small part of keeping their history safe. "At this point in time, it's our job just to preserve it and not let it get ruined, because it may have value to someone down the road," he said.
Master mechanic Robert St. Clair was seriously injured when an acetylene bottle exploded during the Pier A and B fire. Chief Raymond Smith supervises the transport. Everett Fire Department photo
For firefighters, being around death is part of the job. Heart attacks. Overdoses. Suicides. "We have to deal with it," said Ken Dammand, who retired as a fire captain in June and helped write "Fire Boys." "I think a lot of the sadness we hold at bay." No matter what happens, someone has to load the fire hose, readying for the next call. That's the way Denny Somerville tried to look at it. Somerville started as a firefighter in 1968. He retired 31 years later. A natural mechanic, he liked going out on the calls when the crews got to fix people up, set splints and mend broken parts. He liked saving people who suffered heart attacks, giving them another chance at life. "Somebody had to do it, so we should go out and do a good job," he said. "It was rewarding that way." He remembered one call, when the bottom floor of a building was burning. Through the smoke, he saw the silhouette of a man about to jump out a second-story window. The man held a pair of cowboy boots in his hand. Somerville ran in, grabbed the man and carried him out. He remembers the sound of the man's feet thudding against the steps as they went down the stairs. When they got outside, the man was still holding his cowboy boots. Back in the day, there were fewer rules, Somerville said. All the guys had nicknames. Some were a little crude, so in public, they'd have to call those firefighters by the nicknames' initials. The firehouse names went along with the horseplay, and the constant ribbing between crew members. They played tricks on each other, such as stealing furniture from the other fire stations. The messing around helped them cope, Somerville said. So did the excitement, and never knowing what was next. Whenever Somerville went out on a call, he wanted the people he met to know they were in good hands, he said. He wanted them to know that the firefighters were knowledgeable. They could help people and make them feel better. Because, he said, if people got hurt in Everett, they should be treated like family.
Firefighters from Everett Fire Station 5 work on training with a 1967 Mack apparatus. Everett Fire Department photo
The firefighters still go out every Memorial Day weekend to clean and landscape the plot at Evergreen cemetery. They picked the holiday because it seemed an appropriate day to honor those who came before. The 10 graves include two of the men who died in the 1923 crash. The crews scrub the stones with a special solution of their own concoction. They leave small American flags waving at each headstone. They plant flowers -- always geraniums. They're not sure why. It's tradition. That's what matters. Fire Inspectors James McCall and David Wilson talk in hushed tones here. Both men are seasoned firefighters with kind eyes. They don't open up easily. Only after plenty of coaxing do they begin to describe their work parties. It's usually an early Friday morning in late May. A dozen or so firefighters come out. Since the beginning, the firefighters association helped organize work parties for crew members who were injured or sick, McCall said. Off-duty guys show up to perform household chores and yard work. They paint houses. They bring food. They watch over the bed-ridden. "We're all a bunch of buddies, a bunch of brothers, so if you need something, we're going to come and do it for you," Wilson said. Taking care of the buried firefighters strums the same chord, McCall said. It's about honor and pride. "It sends a message that 'You will not be forgotten,' and solidifies the fact that the giving back will never end," he said. While the crews clean, they talk about the shifts the night before. They joke about who works hard and who doesn't. Firehouse talk. The usual. It never changes, no matter the year, McCall said. These days, few of the living might have known those in the ground. They're paying back the people of the past. Wilson spearheaded the cleanup since the early 1990s. Before him, it was Rolf "Doc" Brannstrom, who retired from the fire department in 1982. This May, Wilson was sick and missed a weekend for the first time in years. The guys came out anyway. He knew they would. There always will be someone to take over, he said. Sometimes, when all the work is done, the crews get quiet. Their thoughts turn back in time. They remember. Rikki King: 425-339-3449; email@example.com
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