It was a cold, wet and windy Tuesday night in late January 1981, as off-duty Los Angeles Firefighter Jim Barrett prepared for bed at home.
It had been a long and eventful week for Jim and most Americans. In seven days time, our nation had inaugurated a former California Governor as President, the Oakland Raiders reigned as Super Bowl champs; and 52 Americans were finally home from 444 days of captivity in Iran.
Jim turned off the television news amid word of an Indonesian ship capsized in the Java Sea, killing 580. While tragedy would come far closer before dawn, it was now time for sleep during a pulsing rainstorm. As his head hit the pillow, his thoughts drifted quickly to his Los Angeles Fire Department colleagues on-duty at Fire Station 60 in North Hollywood...
A few miles away in Van Nuys, there was little thought of sleep in the mind of Mario Catanio. The 42 year old barber had agreed to fulfill a wicked request by business owners Henry Martinez and Arlene Boyle to set fire to their financially ailing North Hollywood restaurant. With $2500 and a key to the restaurant burning a figurative hole in his pocket, the yet unknown arsonist would soon alter the course of Los Angeles Fire Department history.
For the men assigned to 24-hour duty on the 'B' Platoon at Fire Station 60, the rainy Tuesday proved active. Just four months to-the-day that LAFD lost Fireman Frank Hotchkin in an Elysian Park inferno, the North Hollywood crew found themselves adopting lessons learned while busily responding to emergencies in the community, including a midnight battle against flames in a two-story apartment building. As the clock raced into Wednesday morning, the crew from Station 60 ritually cleaned equipment and themselves from the grime of the apartment fire, not knowing that Mario Catanio was slinking in the shadows nearby with evil intent.
Awakened by the squeal of his home alarm clock at a ritually early hour on Wednesday, Firefighter Barrett began his commute to work in the pre-dawn darkness, later telling the Los Angeles Times:
"I was driving to the fire station when I heard it on the radio. They were saying something about a fire in North Hollywood - - something about a fireman getting killed and others being hurt. I thought to myself, God, I hope it's not anyone from the station. Then I saw all the cars in front of our place and I knew it was one of us."Barrett ran into the firehouse at Tujunga Avenue and Chandler Boulevard. He saw the men's faces...
On Wednesday, January 28, 1981, at 3:33 AM, while most of the city slept, the alarm bell rang for a full structure fire assignment, sending Los Angeles Fire Department crews, including those from Fire Station 60 to Cugees Restaurant at 5300 Lankershim Boulevard in North Hollywood.
Firefighters found heavy smoke with some fire showing in the interior of the restaurant. Because a backdraft explosion was a distinct possibility - and because the smoke had to be cleared in order to begin a meaningful fire attack, ventilation procedures were begun on the roof.
Four members of Truck 60 were cutting a hole near the center of the roof when, without warning, it began to sink beneath their feet. One firefighter described the sensation as similar to standing on the deck of a rapidly listing ship. As the roof sank, it fell at a steep angle, slowly and agonizingly pulling Apparatus Operator Thomas G. Taylor to his death.
Your LAFD has never forgotten that night, nor have we forgotten those who took Tom from us. We remain deeply indebted to members of our community who joined us in putting pen to paper to make sure Tom's murderer can no longer endanger firefighters or those they proudly serve. We are pleased to say Mr. Catanio remains safely behind bars at Chuckawalla Valley State Prison.
To learn more about our Brother Tom and other members of our Department who have paid the ultimate price in their service to the City, visit the LAFD Museum and Fallen Firefighter Memorial in Hollywood or click:
Submitted by Brian Humphrey, Spokesman
Los Angeles Fire Department