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Firefighter recalls harrowing day when the roof gave way at Beaverton High School's auditorium

by: COURTESY OF ERNIE METCALFE - Lt. Al Edenss (left), an unidentified firefighter (center) and firefighter Art Thurber were on the roof of the Bevaerton High School auditorium shortly before it collapsed. The late Capt. Ernie Metcalfe shot this photo before climbing down to retrieve more air bottles. March 19, 1979, is a day firefighters at the scene of the Beaverton High School auditorium fire will never forget.

Not only was it an amazingly close call for some of those inside and on top of the building but it resulted in the worst survivable burns anyone can remember in recent Washington County fire history.

Before the warm day was over, Terry Bowman, a firefighter who worked for what was then known as Washington County Fire District No. 1, would suffer second- and third-degree burns over 49 percent of his body.

Still, 35 years later, Bowman clearly remembers the moment-to-moment incident as if it were yesterday.

“You know when they say you have a big experience like that, it cements it well into your mind,” Bowman, 72, said from his Rockaway Beach home recently. “Yeah, I remember every bit of it.”

Normally, Bowman, who was then 36, would have remained on the ground, operating the aerial ladder. But that day he wanted to help out, climbing up to the auditorium roof to hand off a chainsaw to his fellow firefighters, so they could ventilate the building.

While he had his heavy turnout trousers on when he ascended the ladder, he didn’t have on his turnout jacket, wearing only a short-sleeved shirt.

The fire would ultimately be traced to a space between the auditorium’s roof and a false roof underneath it. The cause would turn out to be a light bulb touching a seat cushion.

Once he got up there, he fired up the chainsaw and waited to see if anything else was needed.

In 2011, former Beaverton Fire Department Chief Oscar “Sox” Lee, who led the department at the time, recalled telling his men to “get off the roof! Get off the roof!”

Tragic event unfolds

By that time, the firefighters at the scene already sensed the roof was about to collapse.

“I saw the smoke start coming up from the seams between the roof and the parapet, and just suddenly it back-drafted and happened all at once, and I ran for the edge,” Bowman recalled. “I knew where the ladder was, and I jumped through a wall of flame.”

Engulfed in flames, he made it onto the ladder.

“At that point, the roof started to come down and pulled away from the (concrete block) walls and (went) down.”

Because his hands and arms were so badly burned, Bowman couldn’t use them to navigate down the ladder.

What would etch the memory of the drama into everyone’s brain was the fact a television station cameraman and a photographer from The Oregonian captured everything on film.

When Bowman got to the bottom of the ladder, firefighters sprayed him down with water. His short-sleeved shirt was completely burned off his body, an iconic photo shows him standing upright tended by fire officials as the auditorium fire still raged in the background.

Art Thurber, a retired firefighter with Beaverton Fire Department Station 267, was the person Bowman handed the chainsaw to.

“I was walking toward Terry to get the chainsaw and that’s when the roof first opened up and got him,” he said. “I heard him scream. Then he was gone. You couldn’t see him anymore because of the smoke and the fire.” Prior to the fire escalating, Thurber, now 66 and a part-time resident of Pacific City, decided to walk the perimeter of the auditorium just in case he and his fellow firefighters needed a quick escape route. He discovered one at the north end.

by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP FILE PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Terry Bowman displays the melted helmet he wore when he caught fire battling a blaze that destroyed the Beaverton High School auditorim on March 219, 1979. The fire that engulfed him caused second- and third-degree burns over 49 percent of his body. This photo ws taken in the early 1990s, shortly before he retired.Thurber said he remembers Lt. Dave Asher saying something to the effect that they had run out of time.

At that point, all four of the firefighters on the roof went to the north end and jumped from the parapet to a roof over the entrance of the auditorium. The last to jump off, Thurber remembers the intense heat he felt on his legs as he left the main roof just moments before the roof collapsed.

Today, both he and Bowman occasionally hunt and raft together.

Thurber said he doesn’t often think of that day, saying some unpleasant memories you want to block out.

“That was too close,” he said.

Sherwood firefighter recalls

Inside, firefighters from Beaverton’s Brockman Road station, including Rudy Oliveros, had responded to the fire as well. Oliveros, who would go on to serve 13 years at Sherwood Station No. 33, went to look for the source of the fire, climbing up into the auditorium’s projection room along with fellow firefighters Bill Drake, Lorenzo Hernandez, Capt. Jim St. Clair, Lt. Nick Lambing and David Mihm.

“We went up there and it was a large, large room, and we were walking on catwalks (but) couldn’t find the fire because everything looked clear,” recalled Oliveros. Everyone left because it was getting too hot except Hernandez and Drake. When the pair did emerge from the attic, it was obvious they were overheating with Drake diving head first through a hole in the wall.

“He tore his mask off because he was steaming hot,” said Oliveros.

Oliveros said he and Lt. Lambing started to see smoke coming out of the holes in the drinking fountains.

“And then it got really dark and smokey so we couldn’t see,” said Oliveros. “Then the whole building shook.”

When they were inside they didn’t know what was happening on top of the building.

It was only later that Oliveros discovered the extent of Bowman’s injuries after seeing the video recording on the evening news.

“Obviously it was horrible and we felt for Terry because we know that once you get 50 percent of your body burned the chances of you surviving is 50-50,” said Oliveros.

Newly married at the time, Oliveros, now 63, said his wife was pregnant at the time when she heard the news about the fire on television and thought “she was going to be a widow because the report was coming in that (the fire) was pretty bad; a firefighter’s down, and a firefighter’s hurt, and a firefighter’s burned.”

He also realizes that the potential for lost of life was there the entire time as well.

Oliveros credits Thurber with making sure the injuries suffered that day were kept to a minimum.

“Art was instrumental in saving those guys because he had a little more experience,” said Oliveros. “And he had the sense to tell the guys to get the heck out of there.”

Now retired, he said he had a great career.

by: GAZETTE FILE PHOTO: RAY PITZ - Rudy Oliveros, who would later work at Sherwood Station No. 33 for 13 years, was working at a Beaverton fire station when he and his crew responded to the school fire.  Oliveros went to look for the source of the fire, climbing up into the auditorium's projection room and was initially unaware of what happened to Bowman.

Long recovery

Bowman’s recovery would take some time, he said. Doctors grafted skin from his legs and put it on his arms. In addition, he had to wear special gloves for two years and compression elastic around his torso.

“I know what it’s like to wear a girdle,” he joked.

The suspenders holding up his turnout pants and the chinstrap from his helmet protected the skin underneath, so he still has distinctive marks (less so on his chin) to this day.

“It melted my glasses,” he recalled.

He kept his helmet — deformed by the heat — as a souvenir to a long and painful recovery.

Bowman recalled too, just how long, hot and dangerous the fire really was. A fellow firefighter later told him he witnessed steam coming out of one of the school’s water fountains and a glass wall blowing out.

“That was more like an explosion,” he said, noting that several firefighters were blasted down the hall by the force.

Because of the video, fire departments across the country still use it as part of training exercises to emphasize the importance of wearing proper protective gear.

“It’s a bummer to be known forever for a mistake,” Bowman said.

Retired Chief Lee would later recall Bowman’s injuries, adding, “That was one of the worst days of my life when Terry was burned.”

One thing Bowman never doubted was that he would return to firefighting, which he did.

Upbeat and positive by nature, Bowman can joke about some of the aspects of his accident today, including the day several Chemeketa Community College students paid a visit to the Progress Fire Station, where he spent most of his career.

“They were in training for being (firefighters), and they said, ‘You know, it’s kind of a dangerous business. We just saw this video of this guy that came down the ladder on fire.’ And I said, ‘Oh, that was me,’ and they said, ‘Oh no, it wasn’t; this was a young guy.”’

Return to the scene

Bowman said he eventually went back to look at the destroyed auditorium. Understandably, it took awhile for him to regain enough courage to once again climb atop a tall structure again. From that point on, he always made sure he was one step closer to the edge of the roof of any future building fires he fought.

Bowman would go on and retire more than 10 years later, working along the way on the fire district’s hazardous materials team.

Although his injuries were serious, he said he didn’t suffer any long-term health effects.

“I don’t have any problems,” said Bowman. “Everything is good and healthy.”

Today, with a contract with the city of Rockaway Beach, Bowman and his wife Marilou run the management part of the Nedonna Rural Fire Protection District out of their home, collecting the taxes and making budgets for the special district.

They also run a neighborhood association and are actively involved in the local Lion’s Club.

And despite his accident, Bowman has never had any regrets about the career he chose, saying everyone is glad to see a fireman.

“I was really happy being a firefighter,” he said. “There is no better job.”



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