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Heroic 1952 Mack Fire Engine Returns to the OFD

May 11, 2010

Since 1888 Oceanside firefighters have maintained a commitment to serve and a tradition of excellence that continues to this day. In an effort to further preserve that tradition the Oceanside Firefighters Association has recently re-acquired a significant symbol of the department’s proud history.

The White Whale, as it was affectionately named, is actually a 1952 Mack 95 Model fire engine first purchased by the OFD around the same year. With a typical fire engine’s service life of 12 years, it holds the distinction of being one of the most utilized pieces of equipment in the history of the Oceanside Fire Department. During its approximate 30 years of service it saw action in some of the department’s most significant fires to date. Many generations of Oceanside firefighters, including a few current ones, served on its tailboard.

The vehicle’s official city designation is “F4,” which signifies that it is the 4th apparatus assigned to the fire department since that labeling system was put in place. To give some perspective the latest fire truck being put into service is numbered F96. When F4 was taken out of service in 1980 and auctioned off to a collector, the departure of the open-cab, 1000 GPM pumper marked the end of an era. The new owner hopped in the cab and drove it at 45 mph all the way to its new home on a farm in Oregon. He pulled it into his barn, covered it with an old tarp, and did nothing to it but drive it sporadically over the next 25 years. It seemed an inauspicious end for something that had seen so much action…

On March 11th, 1961 the Saint Malo Lumber Company caught fire. It remains one of the largest recorded fires in the history of the City of Oceanside. It was also one of its most tragic. While F4 was busy pumping at capacity high flames caused a power line to drop, striking Fire Chief J. Billings. While he was able to scramble clear OFD Captain Lloyd Seal wasn’t so fortunate. Seal was instantly incapacitated as the high voltage wire continued to electrocute him. A Marine who happened to be watching dove in and freed Captain Seal from the wire, but in the process became electrocuted himself and died instantly. Captain Seal was spared but lost his right leg.

The incident for which F4 became legendary, however, occurred during the Laguna Fire (not the Orange County one) in September of 1970. Coincidentally, it was an incident once again associated with power lines.

Santa Ana wind conditions caused power lines to drop in Harbison Canyon, just east of San Diego. They sparked what would stand for over three decades as the second worst fire in the history of California (after The Great Fire of 1889.) 182,000 acres burned over the course of four days, (compared to 282,000 at the 2003 San Diego Cedar Fire) eventually destroying 382 homes and killing 8 people.

F4, led by Captain Joe Gregory, was dispatched from Oceanside along with Ted Wackerman as the Engineer and Bob Cotton as the firefighter on the tailboard. At the time F4 was designated as OFD Engine 4. They joined a structure protection battle already being fought by a five-engine CDF Task Force led by Captain Bill Clayton. The red, open-cab rig had already outlived its expected usefulness, and it showed amongst the newer and more protective enclosed cab fire engines used by CDF and most other departments.

By the time the task force arrived “firestorm” conditions were already present. They immediately went to work protecting threatened homes. With howling wind and heavy fire, it seemed that flame, heat and smoke were everywhere. For the crew on Engine 4 that meant no shelter. Helmets on and collars up.

Eventually Engine 4 was assigned to protect homes in a canyon across a bridge from where Clayton’s task force was working. As Engine 4 crept up a small road smoke conditions became very heavy, and they almost struck a disabled engine from El Cajon FD. It had suddenly appeared through the smoke. The lack of oxygen had choked out their engine and they were stranded. Meanwhile, it was getting extremely hot. Firefighter Cotton was busy patting out embers that were settling on the hose bed, charring the hose. The situation was clearly getting more dangerous. Just then they saw a nearby home ignite. The stranded El Cajon crew piled on the tail and sideboards of Engine 4 and they all rushed to extinguish it. In the short time it took them to arrive, however, the house was almost entirely in flames. It was then that Captain Gregory and his makeshift crew knew that the entire canyon was about to ignite.

Ted wheeled Engine 4 back to the road and made his way down as cautiously as possible. Little did they know at the same time the fire was chasing CDF Engine 6373 up the road. The two rigs collided before they even saw each other.

A deafening crunch was heard as the driver’s fender of the CDF engine buried itself into Engine 4’s driver’s side. As it scraped along the sideboards its mirror pierced a kidney of one of the El Cajon firefighters. Firefighter Cotton and the other firefighters riding on the tailboard jumped just in time or were all thrown onto the road.

As suddenly as it had occurred it was over. The CDF engine had completely spun around and both engines were undrivable. The front ends of both engines were destroyed and one man was down.

Before the shock of the incident could set in, though, they heard a distant roar. It sounded like it was approaching fast. They didn’t know it at the time, but the fire that was raging on one side of the canyon had jumped to the other side. This situation essentially creates a downward oven effect which superheats everything in that area. Indeed, the entire canyon was in the process of igniting. At the same time they heard several loud explosions. It was the sound of large residential propane tanks exploding. A sheriff’s cruiser emerged through the smoke from above the canyon and was gone so fast no one was even sure he saw them.

Ted discovered that although Engine 4 was immobilized, the engine could still operate the pump. They were trapped and had no choice but to take shelter where they stood. Protecting the downed firefighter, all three crews crouched down together next to Engine 4. By now they were exposed and surrounded by intense heat and flame. The pump came to life and the two hose reels flowed water. As the fire burned towards, through, and past them Engine 4 continued to pump. At times the lack of oxygen would make it sputter, but it never quit. Meanwhile, their attention stayed focused on a nearby propane tank as it whistled loudly, attempting to relieve the pressure created by the heat. The sound of other exploding tanks continued to echo through the canyon. Firefighter Cotton used one of the hose lines to keep it cool with the hope of preventing this one from exploding and killing all of them.

Then it passed. The time frame from when OFD Engine 4 started driving up the canyon to when the fire passed was 15 minutes. Within that short time 105 houses were lost, with only a few engines and Captain Clayton’s task force assigned to protect them.

As the crews emerged from their fireproof huddle they noticed the entire area around them wa scompletely scorched. In fact, the hose in the bed of Engine 4 was still on fire. But other than the injured firefighter, they were all okay. Engine 4 had protected them.

Just then Captain Clayton screeched up in a sheriff’s cruiser. The deputy that had passed them had seen them and notified Clayton that there were several firefighters trapped up the hill. At the time Clayton and his crew were watching their dome light melt while sheltered in the cab of their own engine. Upon hearing this he hopped in the cruiser and made his way up the canyon, following the path of the fire. When he arrived it seemed to him that it wasn’t just the landscape and fire engines that were scorched…but the firefighters themselves. He quickly loaded up the downed firefighter and sped him to the nearest hospital to be treated, most likely saving his life.

Engine 4 was unceremoniously towed back to the city garage for repair. Around the time it was being repaired there was a decree by the city manager that all Oceanside city vehicles be painted white. Although every other fire department engine was red, the city garage dutifully painted it white. The fire chief protested loudly and F4 is the only Oceanside fire engine ever painted white…hence, the White Whale.

F4 remained in service for the remainder of that decade, and ran its last alarm in 1980 out of Fire Station 3 at El Camino Real and Oceanside Blvd. It then found its home in Oregon where it rested for the next 25 years.

Then, rumor surfaced that the old rig was up for bid on eBay. The truth, in fact, was that it had already been bid on and won. But then rumor surfaced that the winning bidder did not come up with the funds in time, and that F4 was still available.

Now-retired OFD Captain Bruce Kassebaum, realizing the historical significance of the White Whale, mounted an effort to have the Oceanside Firefighters Association (OFA) purchase it and bring it back to its rightful home. The owner (who had owned the engine almost as long as it was in service) liked the idea of the old engine returning to its origin and sold it at a deep discount for the price of $5,000.

In the Fall of 2005 Joe Brown, an Oceanside firefighter in the ‘60s and current owner of Joe Brown Trucking, sent a flatbed up to Oregon to bring F4 home. Richard “Hatch” Baxter, a former Oceanside Fire engineer and F4 alumni, accompanied it.

After the several day journey the flatbed brought F4 back to its new home at the Oceanside Fire Training Center. At first glance it appeared as though the OFA had just thrown $5,000 out the window. It was covered in rust. All visible rubber…including the tires…was cracked and deteriorated. The shiny chrome on its once proud grill was flaking off or rusted. The white paint was completely oxidized. Someone even hopped up, reached inside and pulled out some chicken eggs. And worse, it was missing its trademark fire bell. It seemed that F4 was a long way from the glory of September 29th, 1970.

Hatch hopped into Ted’s old seat and hit the ignition button. Miraculously it started up. Hatch wasn’t surprised, though, being that he and retired Battalion Chief Dick Thompson had completely rebuilt both the engine and pump just before it was auctioned those 25 years earlier. He backed it off the flatbed and proceeded to take a couple of laps around the drill grounds. Overall it sounded strong…and it was rolling. Hatch was smiling. Maybe the old rig still had the strength symbolized by the Mack bulldog hood ornament.

There were no illusions that restoring F4 wouldn’t be a massive undertaking. It was estimated that it would take several hundred hours of volunteer labor. OFD Engineer Tom Schraeder decided to take on the role of Project Chief, and after months of planning official restoration began in March of 2007.

One of the first tasks was to disassemble it and prepare it for bodywork and restoration to its original red color. When a concealed compartment where the water tank is located was exposed, the OFA F4 Project volunteers were surprised to find the names of past firefighters graffittied inside. One of them was Joe Gregory, the captain who was in charge on the day when the three crews nearly periled in that canyon at the Laguna Fire.

During this process Chief Thompson was able to procure the original fire bell, while Captain Mark Finstuen has located the original license plate.

While the OFA is funding the restoration project, much of the efforts are being donated. The original red paint job will be restored courtesy of Scott Smith of the San Diego Auto Auction on North River Rd. (No more White Whale) The project is also hoping to have all the chrome restoration donated as well.

Once it is painted and the chrome and rubber are all restored, the pump and hose reels that were instrumental in saving the three crews lives will be fixed and operable. The large capacity original water tank is rusted beyond repair so a new, smaller one will be installed, which will allow for additional seating in the rear.

When completed F4 will once again become Engine 4, and it will be put into service for parades, fire prevention week, tours, memorials and funerals, and other OFA related activities. Also, with the converting of the historical Oceanside Fire Station 1 on Pier View Way into a museum, they are hoping to reserve one of the garage bays as its final home and display area.

If there are any questions feel free to contact the Oceanside Firefighters Association. They are also accepting non-tax deductible contributions. They can be reached by email at ST3736@sbcglobal.net, and their address is OFA Local 3736, PO Box 537, Oceanside, CA 92049.

Written by Stu Sprung, 2007