Police & Fire

Former Fire Chiefs Share Life Lessons, Remember Tragic Fires During Fireside Chat

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Two Warehouses used to store paint thinners, aerosol cans and other flammable liquids were completely involved when the first engine arrived on the scene. There were also roof fires on west Second street and also on Valley Forge rd. Aerosol cans and 55 gallon drums were flying through the air and landed as far as a block and a half away. Two Fairmount trucks were damaged with one pumper having to be repainted. About 100 firefighters from eight fire companies bought the fire under control at 12:15 and area residents who had been evacuated returned to their homes by 4:45 P.M. Damage was estimated to be $350.000   Credits: Fairmount Fire Co.
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For a firefighter and former fire chief like Fairmount Fire Company's Jay Daveler, the memory and heartache of knowing you could not save someone – even a child – in a major fire never extinguishes.

In fact, to this day, every Easter, Daveler remembers the tragic losses of the April 9, 1977 fire in Wedgewood.

“The worst experience in my life was the Wedgewood fire. There's not an Easter that goes by that I don't think about that night. We lost four children and a couple homes. It was a very, very tough night,” Daveler said.

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The same feeling that Daveler suffers is also shared by former Hatfield Fire Co. Chief Bob Kaler, albeit the tragedy was not a loss of life, but a loss of love.

On New Year's Eve 2011, Kaler just watched, helpless, as Grace Lutheran Church in Hatfield Borough went up in flames.

“It was probably the most devastating, emotional thing for myself. Even though I was no longer chief or fighting fires, I was one of the emergency people there with a key as a parishioner,” Kaler said. “When I got there, I saw what was happening. I could tell each stage of that fire. I knew the progression. It was devastating. A church has volumes of oxygen there, and it just feeds.”

Daveler and Kaler shared their experiences as fire chiefs Tuesday night – along with their peers, former Colmar Fire Co. Chief Jim Swartley and former Towamencin Vol. Fire Co. Chief Butch Clemens – during Lansdale Historical Society's fireside chat at the Lansdale Parks and Recreation Building.

Daveler joined Fairmount in 1957, and was chief from 1957 to 2011. Kaler joined Hatfield Fire Co. in 1958, and served proudly as chief from 1968 to 1982. He is now mayor of Hatfield Borough. Swartley joined Colmar Fire Co. in 1959 and served two tenures as chief, from 1978 to 1991 and from 1997 to 2005. Clemens joined Towamencin Fire Co. in 1950 and served as chief from 1959 to 1991.

The Sun Ray Drug Store/Levin Department Store/Cannoneers Club Fire, Lansdale, Feb. 8, 1967

Daveler's feet were only wet for three days as first assistant fire chief at age 27 when a major blaze broke out at Lansdale Pharmacy in the early morning hours of Feb. 8, 1967.

“I got to the scene, and fire was out the front and back doors. It was probably the first fire we fought together,” he said. “It was a very substantial-sized fire. We lost three buildings.”

Daveler said two buildings were involved in the fire, and it did not help that the buildings were constructed in such a way that the second and third floors were open and went through to other buildings.

“When we got there, the fire was up the elevator shaft and it moved into another part of the building. The worst part was it was freezing cold. Our coats froze to us. I remember taking a spanner wrench to bang the ice off the buckles to get out of the coat,” Daveler said.

The best part of the fire, he said, was all the cheering and clapping the crowd was doing for the fire chief at the time and the former police chief Wally Hendricks.

“They thought they saved someone. We didn't realize it was a mannequin they were pulling out of the store,” Daveler said, to the laughs from the crowd in attendance. “I'll never forget the clapping and seeing Wally step out of Levin's window carrying a dummy.”

Throughout the night, all four chiefs praised the late Hendricks, who was a member of Towamencin Vol. Fire Co.

“Wally was always my friend. He was very fire company-oriented,” Daveler said. “He was a very dedicated fireman. He was the guy you want by your side when fighting a fire.”

“He was our president for a long period of time,” Clemens said. “Wally was a great asset to Towamencin Fire Company.”

Arco Fire at Snyder Square, Hatfield, Feb. 25, 1989

Kaler said the Arco fire was his very first major fire as chief.

“Unfortunately, the police department in the township thought they were in charge of the fire. They were calling all kinds of fire companies and they had them all arriving at one time,” Kaler said. “I remember the guy driving the truck, he said, 'It's really burning.' That's all he said going down South Main Street. I would often tease Howard Heckler: 'We burnt down the building for you and now you can build a whole center there.'

Century Kitchen Fire, Colmar, 1984

When Swartley came up Walnut Street around 4:30 a.m., the smoke from the Century Kitchen fire was thick across Route 309. He quickly called for help from Fairmount Fire Co., Hatfield Fire Co. and Ambler, and crews laid lines from Yum Yum Donuts, from the rear of Century Kitchens and from Line Street, respectively.

“We actually saved one-third of that building,” Swartley said.

The Old Mill Fire, Allentown Road, Towamencin, 1952

“That was quite a fire,” said Clemens. “We were knocking it down pretty well, and there were looters while the fire was burning.”

Clemens would also never forget the live ammo going off during the blaze.

“They had sporting goods and ammo in there,” he said. “We handled it the way Fairmount did in Allied.”

Allied Paint Fire, Third Street, Lansdale, Nov. 24, 1974

It was 10:30 a.m. and Daveler got the fire call while working at his business at Fifth Street and Cannon Avenue. He responded and looked down Third Street and all he saw was a lot of fire coming out of the front of the building.

“I figured, we could probably handle this,” he said.

Little did Daveler know, they would be in for a very dangerous situation. Ever see 55-gallon drums explode and go airborne, only to land blocks away?

“I'll never forget going down Susquehanna and taking a left on Main (in the fire truck) and the truck driver turning the headlights on. It was like midnight in Lansdale. The plume of smoke was coming over the whole borough,” Daveler said. “It was dark.”

The fire also literally blew the roof off the building, he said.

“There was a lot of chemicals and paint stored in Norristown, and unbeknownst to us, they moved it to Lansdale. The last load was delivered at 8:30 a.m. and by 10:30 a.m., the whole building caught fire,” he said. “It was the most dangerous fire I ever encountered.”

Daveler said there was thousands of gallons of flammable liquid in the fire, and the caps to the drums were unscrewed, allowing flammable liquid to flow out of the building.

“The major problem was we were ready to lose the whole block of homes. The fuel and heat was so intense,” Daveler said. “We didn't even bother to put water on the fire. We started cooling the homes down on either side. We contained the fire successfully in the original building.”

Then, there were the explosions. One 55-gallon drum landed at Third Street and Mitchell Avenue.

“We had drums going over Lansdale. I don't remember any injuries,” Daveler said. “I would believe it was the most intense fire I've seen in my 44 years. I've never seen anything like it.”

Didden's Nursery Fire, Hatfield Borough

The warehouse and garage fire at Didden's Nursery in Hatfield was one of the last calls Kaler responded to as a firefighter.

“I sat on the running board (of the truck) and said, 'Why am I doing this?'” he said.

This fire was fed by propane tanks inside the warehouse, he said. It did not help that it was a windy day too.

“The more you know about buildings in the community, the better off you are,” Kaler said. “Lansdale and Hatfield – a lot of the older buildings aren't there, but a lot were wood construction with false ceilings. That will carry a fire from one section to another section.”

Back in those days, Kaler said, it was a simpler time. They did not believe in smoke masks back then; firefighters went right inside a fire.

“It's a different world today,” he said. “Progress and change is necessary. There are a lot of benefits to that. You have personnel. You, as chief, if you don't know your personnel, you're defeating yourself. That formula has not changed. It's the same today as it was back in Ben Franklin’s time. You know who can do what and you rely on that.”

Montgomeryville Mart/Mickey's Mouse Fires of 1976 and 1991

Swartley had just ended his tenure as chief the first time when the Mart fire had its death knell in 1991. The 1976 fire originated in the bathroom at the strip club inside the Mart known as Mickey's Mouse.

“We kicked in the front doors, and the fire was halfway down through the Mart. It was going pretty good,” Swartley said of the 1991 blaze.

Oak Park Road Fire of 1959/Wedgewood Park Rowhome Fire, April 9, 1977/Wissahickon Park Fire, Aug. 19, 1988

The Wedgewood fire would not be the only time Daveler would deal with the death of children in a fire. Along with the Oak Park Road fire of 1959 and the Wissahickon Park Apartment fire of 1988, a total of eight children lost their lives.

“We teach that you cannot hide from a fire,” Daveler said.

Daveler was only 20 and even know the young lady and one of the children who were victims of the 1959 Oak Park Road fire.

“It was a very hard fire for me. It's a fire I'll never forget,” he said. “I started carrying people down from the upper floors.”

It was in the wake of these fires that the Montgomery County Fifth Fire District began its fire prevention program.

“Kids do crazy things. Kids go to their favorite spot and try to hide,” Daveler said. “When we started the investigation of Wissahickon, one of the children was found in a bed and the other was in a closet, and had knowledge of the fire. All they had to do was tell somebody in the house what happened. Instead, they hid in a closet. We pushed extra hard on fire prevention after that.”

Daveler said you remember the good and the bad times as a firefighter.

“Those three fires, I'll never forget,” he said. “For one, I was young. This thing with the children in the closet, it got to me. It's a job that I did, a job I'd chosen. Unfortunately, in the real world, this is what happens.”

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