California Hotel Fire Leaves Four Dead And 18 Injured 29 Dec 2002 SAN BERNARDINO, CA: Four people were killed and 18 others were injured as fire spread through the top floor of a small residential hotel early morning Saturday. Firefighters managed to pull dozens out of the blaze to safety. When firefighters reached the Sunset Hotel just before 01:00PST, several people were hanging from the upper floor windows. Firefighters used ladders to reach more than 30 people, including a 2-month-old infant, but others were trapped inside, and much of the third floor was fully involved in flames.
These were the headlines from one of the deadliest hotel fires in recent years. Five years later, the hotel has undergone a complete transformation, including a name change and the installation of residential sprinklers. However, for members of the San Bernardino City Fire Department who were involved at that fire we will never forget the tragic events that occurred in that building on 12/29/02. Ironically, it did not occur just once, but twice. A little more than a year later another major fire occurred in the building that resulted in a single civilian fatality and extensive damage to the building.
Having been involved in two very significant and deadly hotel fires in a short period is rare. However, from a firefighting standpoint, it can’t be over emphasized the importance of strategic and tactical pre-planning. The entire San Bernardino City Fire Department had a thorough knowledge of the building and a tactical readiness that was without a doubt, a big help with the successful outcome of the second fire.
Taking a look back after five years is very interesting. This was one of those fires that you think about your whole career. What will happen? What will I do if I am in charge of a situation like that? Can I prepare enough for a fire situation like that? What I have learned is that it is not near as important to know the answers to those questions as it is to share the lessons learned with those in the fire service that come behind us.
The San Bernardino City Fire Department is rapidly becoming a very young fire department. we have nearly 1/3 of the fire department that has less than 5 years on the job. The vast majority of those people were not involved with either one of those two tragic hotel fires. It is crucial that we share the lessons learned. What we did right and what we could do better next time, because it is not a matter of if. Rather, it is matter of when.
As I looked back after 5 years and was sharing some of those lessons with our younger people I found a letter that I had written to the entire fire department and specifically, to those that were directly involved with the fire. Below, is the letter that I wrote to the men and women of the San Bernardino City Fire Department:
When I first got into the fire service, I remember being told by a very wise firefighter that there would only be a few fires in my career that I would have the opportunity to display all of the tools that it takes to literally save someone or better yet, save several lives. He said that although those opportunities are very rare it is of the utmost importance to spend your career training as though your very next fire is going to be that one that you will remember for the rest of your life and the one that you don’t want to have any regrets about how yourself, your company or your entire fire department handled that opportunity. On December 29th at 00:55 hrs the SBFD got that opportunity. I would like to take this opportunity to say thank you, to all of the men and women who displayed the utmost in professionalism during the fire fighting operation and more specifically the physical rescues of men, women and children who most certainly were going to die if those necessary tools were not displayed correctly. I have never been more proud to be a member of the San Bernardino City Fire Department, than during that firefighting operation. Without a doubt, I was witness to the most impressive display of rescue and firefighting skills that I have ever seen in my 20 years. Some would say, that is crazy considering that four civilians lost their lives. I would say that those lost lives are extremely unfortunate and even more unfortunate considering how hard and desperate you all tried to keep that from happening. However, anyone who was on that fire also understands that many others are alive today because of individual efforts that went far beyond what most in the fire service have ever had the opportunity to display. Those individual efforts were unbelievable and believe me, I was in probably the best position to see most all of it. Those individual efforts were combined to make the best team effort I have ever seen in my career. Shortly after the fire was extinguished and the chaos started to diminish, I had an opportunity to reflect on some of the things that occurred on the fire ground. I have often wondered how good our fire department really is. We have talent and personality that is immeasurable, but I have always believed that the real test of how good our fire department is on the fire ground, would come when we had the opportunity to handle a situation like the one that we were confronted with at the Sunset Hotel. I have no doubts about that now. Some would say that we were all just doing our job and that is the way it should be. I would say they are right. However, what I saw on that night went far beyond just doing the job. I saw firefighters, engineers and captains who made rescues that go beyond just doing the job. I saw captains that displayed the type of leadership that make those rescues happen in a professional and timely manner. As for me. Well, after preaching the truck company stuff for so many years to so many people who probably thought I was a bit eccentric and maybe a bit overboard on some of the philosophies I can now smile when I think back on the things that I saw and how professionally it was accomplished. Of the 47 “A” shift personnel on duty the day of the Sunset fire, 27 of them were from the “B” and/or “C” shift. We always joke about being three fire departments, but the reality is that looking at the shift diversity of the personnel that were on that fire shows that we are truly becoming one fire department and the efforts of all who were on that fire are truly representative of the entire SBFD. Thank you for your efforts and your professionalism. You should be very proud of yourselves and each other. Keep up the good work and remember, those types of fires and situations don’t come often but in a 25 to 30 year career, especially in this City, they will come. Be Ready!