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Apodaca: 100 years of fiery heroism

April 08, 2011|By Patrice Apodaca
  • Newport Beach Firefighter Joel Chidley hoists a chainsaw during a training session at the Santa Ana Heights Fire Station on Wednesday.
Newport Beach Firefighter Joel Chidley hoists a chainsaw… (KENT TREPTOW, Daily…)

In the wee morning hours of Jan. 11, 1975, a police officer noticed smoke billowing from a block-long building on Pacific Coast Highway in Newport Beach.

Firefighters were on the scene within three minutes, but it was already too late. The row of storefronts, which housed a cable company, a bank, a ski shop and other businesses, was engulfed in flames.

Desperate to prevent the inferno from spreading, firefighters were stymied when they discovered that water pressure from nearby hydrants wasn't sufficient. They tried to pull water from the bay, but that attempt proved cumbersome and inadequate. Finally, two fireboats pulled up to the seawall across the highway and pumped saltwater into hoses. The fire was extinguished many hours later.

An entire city block was reduced to a pile of charred rubble. Firefighters never stood a chance because the flames had raced unhindered through an attic that spanned the full length of the building.

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Al Haskell was a young firefighter, one of many who responded to the call that day, and he remembers like it was yesterday every detail of what became known as the Mariner's Mile fire. At one point, he helped the ski shop owners try to retrieve items from their safe inside the building. The heat was so intense it forced them to run back out without even taking the time to close the safe door.

Haskell, who retired more than 17 years ago, was one of a few past and present Newport Beach firefighters who shared their thoughts with me as the department prepares to commemorate its centennial this year.

The celebration kicks off with a pancake breakfast and open house from 9 a.m. to noon Saturday at the Santa Ana Heights station. The public is welcome.

The centennial "is a big deal for me," said Capt. Rob Beuch, a 30-year veteran who is coordinating the events. "To hit this milestone is huge, professionally and emotionally."

For the rest of us, the occasion provides an opportunity to show our appreciation for these devoted but often unheralded public servants. The general goodwill toward firefighters in the aftermath of 9/11 seems to have dissipated in recent years as cash-strapped local governments wrestle with cutbacks. Those are thorny issues that won't be resolved easily, but they shouldn't detract from the gratitude we should all feel for people who save lives for a living.

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