COOS BAY — Seventeen years ago on Monday, Nov. 25, the Coos Bay community was left stunned and heartbroken after three of its firefighters died when the Farwest Truck & Auto Supply building went up in flames.
“I was working that morning,” remembered Mark Anderson, fire chief at the Coos Bay Fire Department.
A memorial to Coos Bay Firefighters Chuck Hanner, Randall E. Carpenter and Jeffery E. Common who died battling a 2002 fire in Coos Bay.
Back in 2002, Anderson was a career fireman alongside one of the firefighters who was killed that day. In fact, Anderson and Captain Randall Carpenter were hired at CBFD around the same time.
“That morning my boss said since it’s coming up on Thanksgiving and I had vacation plans that I could leave early,” Anderson said. “If I had been there and not left early, I would have been in the thick of things.”
Anderson had just arrived in Sisters when his wife got a call from family asking if he was okay.
“We didn’t know what happened,” Anderson said. “We rushed back.”
According to the National Fallen Firefighters Association, the roof collapsed when a backdraft whipped up an explosive ball of fire. The collapse trapped Capt. Carpenter and volunteer firefighter Jeff Common on the second floor landing.
Volunteer firefighter Chuck Hanners was “blown down the stairs, but died before he was able to escape the burning building,” read a story from the Bandon Western World newspaper. “A heavy support beam fell on Common and Carpenter, knocking Common’s helmet off and pinning them to the floor in the inferno.”
People mourn during a ceremony to honor three firefighters killed during a Nov. 25, 2002 fire in Coos Bay.
“The fire was in the walls and roof structure,” Anderson recalled. “At first there wasn’t a lot of smoke in the store area or display area at all as firefighters were trying to find where the light smoke was coming from. But the fire was actively burning the roof above their heads and they didn’t realize it … One was killed immediately, another shortly thereafter, and the third succumbed to injuries and smoke inhalation a short time after.”
Nov. 25, 2002
Longtime World photographer, Lou Sennick, now retired, had the day off when the fire started. But when the editor let him know there was a fire in downtown Coos Bay, he grabbed his camera gear and got in the car.
“I was asked to go on a hill overlooking the downtown area,” he said. “So I went to Telegraph Hill.”
From a bird’s eye view, Sennick saw thick black smoke coming out of the building on South Second Street and firefighters in the process of climbing down from the roof.
“Part of the roof had already collapsed and they were evacuating,” Sennick said, who went to the scene after that.
When he arrived, the fire chief pulled him aside to let him know that two fire fighters were missing and one was announced dead on arrival at the hospital.
“I’ve shot a lot of fires,” Sennick said. “I’ve shot some fires with fatalities, but this was the first time I photographed a fire where firefighters themselves were killed … I think about that fire a little, but try not to. It was one of the toughest assignments I’d ever done. I knew those guys so it made it a little tougher.”
As Anderson thought back on that day 17 years ago, he said the fire started because a parts-cleaning furnace wasn’t installed correctly.
“It was unapproved and had illegal installation,” Anderson said.
According to a 2003 article by World reporter Andrew Sirocchi, who covered the fire extensively from the day it happened, “a state fire marshal’s report faulted a parts-cleaning furnace installed outside of the manufacturer’s guidelines, without proper roof clearances, chimney materials permits and without an inspection.”
The article pointed out that furnace contractor Verlin Glen Villines and John Inskeep, owner of Automotive Machine Services, pleaded no contest to reckless endangering charges. Both were sentenced to four months in jail, the article said.
However, changes were also made to the Coos Bay Fire Department after that day. Sirocchi’s article pointed out that OR-OSHA fined the City of Coos Bay for “several violations but then decided to allow Coos Bay to use the fines for fire department equipment after the city challenged the ruling.”
A man walks Friday past a memorial for three firefighters who died battling a 2002 fire in Coos Bay.
In addition, the city put forward changes to its fire department codes to meet OSHA’s report.
“This didn’t happen for nothing,” said Lt. Randy Miles in the 2003 article. “We are making changes.”
Anderson pointed out that even 17 years later, what happened that day is still used as an example for “best practices” in classrooms teaching new firefighters across the nation.
“The entire department, volunteer and career, were emotionally devastated,” Anderson said.
To let the Coos Bay Fire Department grieve, other departments from around the state stepped in to cover alarm response for about 10 days. A group from Portland even sent a public information officer down to help update the public as the investigation progressed and funeral services were planned.
During that time, a procession through both North Bend and Coos Bay took place to remember those three firefighters.
Dozens of emergency departments from throughout the state gather ahead of a Dec. 1, 2002 ceremony to honor three firefighters killed during a …
“A town procession is typical for a line-of-duty death,” Anderson said, adding that there just aren’t that many.
On average, 100 firefighters die in the line of duty nationally every year, half of which are from wildfires. The other 50 die in structure fires.
“It was unusual for us and Oregon to have three at one time,” Anderson said. “It was a big deal not just for us but most line-of-duty deaths are individual. A national study was done. There was a national spotlight on the whole thing to make sure everything was done correctly and that it wouldn’t happen again.”
Sennick remembered the procession, where well over 100 firetrucks came in from across the state and parked at The Mill Casino-Hotel where the RV Park now sits.
“They left their trucks downtown and marched up to Marshfield High School,” Sennick said.
For Anderson, he remembered the weather that day. The procession ended at the football field where a community-wide service was held outside with hundreds of people in attendance. Then-Gov. John Kitzhaber spoke at the service.
“Having it outdoors was unusual for November,” Anderson said. “There is usually a lot of rain.”
People attend a ceremony to honor three firefighters killed during a Nov. 25, 2002 fire in Coos Bay.
According to him, two of the firefighters were buried locally while the third was buried in Baker.
“I knew them all very well,” he said.
As the anniversary of the fire approaches this coming Monday, Nov. 25, Anderson said the public can expect to see the department’s flag lowered to half-staff. Flowers are also placed at the downtown memorial and at each of the local graves.
“The site of the fire has a small memorial, put up by the owner of the property in honor of the firefighters, so we put flowers there for the third firefighter who is buried out of town,” Anderson said. “This anniversary is around Thanksgiving so it is usually a somber time for us …
"I want people to remember it. It is important that we remember.”