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Ted Hall, Arnie Quinones & Camp 16: Part 2 – the Inferno

September 11th, 2009 by Celeste Fremon

camp-gleason1

The memorial for LA County firefighters Captain Ted Hall and Specialist Arnie Quinones will be held at 10 a.m. on Saturday at Dodger Stadium.

So let us revisit the events on Mt. Gleason on August 30 in order to honor the work and the lives of two men who became the teachers, heroes and friends, over the years, to several hundred wildland firefighters—who also happened to be prison inmates.

Many of those former inmates will be prominent among the mourners at Elysian Park on Saturday morning.


gleason-fire-office-boq


Mt. Gleason, or Camp 16 —it is known by both appellations-
— was opened in 1979 as the first of four Los Angeles County Fire Department Wild Land fire camps where prison inmates are trained in wild land fire fighting techniques—and then deployed to the front lines when a fire breaks out.

“Most of us are flatlanders,” said LA County fire inspector Steve Zermeno. “We’re the ones who are going to be used for structure protection. These guys,” he said, “the inmates, are the people who are trained in wildland firefighting, which is a whole different thing.

“So when we get a big fire like the Station fire, we really count on them.”

At the time that the Station Fire broke out—the largest fire ever to hit LA—Ted Hall and Arnie Quinones were stationed at Mt. Gleason to train, mentor and help deploy Camp 16′s teams of inmate firefighters.

It seems that, for both men, their commitment to the fire camp work was some kind of genuine calling. Ted Hall had been stationed at Gleason for the past few years and loved being up there.

Arnie Quinones, who was younger than Ted Hall, had been at the Gleason camp longer, since 2005. But when the department higher ups learned that his adored wife Lori was pregnant, they offered Q.—as he was called—a chance to transfer to a post that would be closer to his wife as her delivery date approached.

Arnie declined the transfer. He was devoted to his wife, but in terms of work, he wanted to remain with the wildfire inmates at Camp 16.

It was, as we now know, a fateful choice—in the worst and the best sense or the term.

It has already been reported, here and elsewhere, that Quinones and Hall helped save the lives of the 55 inmates and three CDCR staff who were still at Mt. Gleason when a part of the Station fire made a run at the camp. (The camp’s other 50 or so inmates were already deployed on the fire lines.)

But the details of what happened that day are far scarier:

The fire didn’t just overrun the camp. It turned into a blast-furnace and melted it. It caused its windows to to turn liquid and run into sculptural puddles. When people talk about infernos, the fire that ate Camp Gleason is what they have in mind.
dining-hall-showing-melted-glass-and-warped-stainless-tables1

NOTE: The investigation is ongoing and new facts and shadings to events will assuredly emerge, but, based on interviews with CDCR officials and LA County Fire spokespeople, here is the best of what we know so far about what happened on Mt. Gleason :

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in CDCR, Fire, LACFD, Natural Disasters | 21 Comments »

Ted Hall, Arnie Quinones & Camp 16: Part 1 – Inmate Grief

September 11th, 2009 by Celeste Fremon

hall-quinones-shirt


When I posted a less detailed version of the above story ten days ago,
after the news of Hall and Quinones deaths became public, former Mt. Gleason inmates and their family members wrote in to say how much Hall and Quinones mattered to them.

You’ll find some of those comments excerpted below:


FROM GABBY GUZMAN

Q, was an amazing foreman, well at least that is what my husband Steve Guzman says. My husband had the honor and priveldge of working under Q as one of the inmate firefighters for two years and developed a friendship with him. Q even made an effort to come out to visit and meet with the families which made it much more real. Steve has countless stories of the amazing man Q was, not once did he treat the men any less because of who they were. He developed genuine bonds with the inmates and for that he will always be hoonored. I can tell you first hand what the friendship meant to my husband, I saw it first hand. Q made an impact on Steve’s life as he counseled and befriended him.

He is our fallen hero. May God bless his family and our prayers go out to them.


FROM KOOLY

Thanks for mentioning the inmate crews; seems they never get recognition. As an ex-inmate fire fighter I was proud to have served with such people as our fallen heroes.


FROM ANDREA BUTTNER

This is very close to me because my husband was one of the inmates left behind. I had called the camp minutes before the camp caught on fire and at that time they were getting ready to evacuate. I can just image the fear they felt. I never met captain Hall but heard really good things about him. I know my husband Christopher Buttner is really upset about the loss of Q as he called him. I had the privilege to meet him 2 months ago during a visit with my husband and he had nothing but respect for my husband and nothing but nice things to say about him. Q made is rounds that day to all the families there that were visiting. How he treated those men ment a lot to my husband. My husband said he always treated them like a fellow fire fighter not an inmate. This lifted him and showed him he was not just an inmate or a number. I thank his wife for being so supportive by standing by him as he trained and work a long side men that had done wrong and giving them a chance to rehabilitate themselves. My prayers go out to his whole family. He will never be forgotten.


FROM MARIA

My husband is also an inmate firefighter. He tells me that he loves giving back to society. The captains are very nice to them and get to know them as a person. They give these guys respect and a second chance.


FROM MARY C.

My son is a camp foreman at camp 16 and was on duty that day. He credits the efforts and actions of Ted and Arnie with saving their lives. The foremen and crews have suffered a great loss and experienced almost loosing their own lives as well.

(Note: The camp foreman is an LA County firefighter, not an inmate.)


FROM ANGELA

I am a wife of one of the inmates that was stuck in MT Gleason #16 and I’m still very devastated. The thought of watching it on T.V and not knowing what is going to happen to all of them and not able to get any information was the worst anyone can go through but thanks to all the prayers from all the families, they lived through it. I had a chance to talk to my husband and I’m thankful he and all the inmates and staff survived this hell. I’m very saddened with the loss of these two wonderful men Ted Hall and Arnie Quinones. I know they were good people and both men treated the inmates as people not criminals.


FROM SAMUEL

My son is alive because of the actions of those two men.But, there has to be an inquiry of why the system was not concerned about getting those men out of that terrible place. If that had been done, two people would still be alive and their families happy.
Now, they are saying that the LACO firefighters need therapy because of the tragedy. What about the inmates that were terrified and experienced fear and death? Why aren’t thay being provided therapy? Do they not have any feelings.



FROM FORMER DEADWOOD

As a former inmate at a camp, I can attest to the dedication these men have to their crews. There are 33 camps in Calif,two women and the rest men. I am thankful for the camps and the chance it gave us to give back to society. These men are awesome examples of what a hero is and about how one should treat his fellow man.

NOTE: Memorial T-Shirts and Memorial Fund information may be found here,

Photo by Brian Watt/KPCC

Posted in CDCR, Fire, LACFD, Natural Disasters | 2 Comments »

Firefighters Arnie Quinones & Ted Hall: A Hero Story

August 31st, 2009 by Celeste Fremon

ted-hull-and-arnie-quinones-2


Firefighters are, by definition, heroic.
But in some cases, the heroism is more direct.

We know that Sunday night Los Angeles County Firefighters Arnie Quinones and Ted Hall, both experienced firefighters—Ted a 26-year veteran of LACFD, Arnie a specialist—were killed in the course of working on the Station fire. We think it happened when a ferocious and fast-moving tongue of the blaze overtook their vehicle causing them to go off the road. Or maybe it was the smoke that blinded them for a fatal moment. Investigators are not yet sure. What is completely clear is that they plunged down an 800 foot embankment, and the engine truck flipped, landing upside down.

“Look,” LA County Fire Inspector Frederic Stowers told me. ” One thing I can tell you is that it’s a dangerous road even when it’s daylight and there’s no fire.”


What we also do know is that just before Hall and Quinones
got on that fire-haunted road, they helped to save the lives of 58 other men, and that they were on that difficult road trying to find a route to safety for those same 58 men when the fire in some way caught up with them.

In short: this is a hero story.


NOTE: BEFORE READING ON...please know that this post about of the events on Mt. Gleason was an early account that reflects as much as CDCR officials knew at the time. Since this account was written new facts have emerged, which I posted about here. But the investigation is ongoing and a truly accurate account may not emerge for some time. However one thing that those of us covering this incident have heard repeatedly: and that is the message that many of those trapped on Mt. Gleason might not be alive had it not been for Ted Hall and Arnie Quinones.


Both Ted Hall and Arnie Quinones were known to be ardent family guys. Quinones’s wife was pregnant and due to give birth to the couple’s first child within a few weeks. The soon-to-be-father was thrilled. Hall was married with two sons—ages 20 and 21—whom he doted on and adored.

But in addition to their families, the men also loved the work. At the time of their deaths, both Hall and Quinones were engaged in an interesting and unusual job for LACFD: They were assigned to Mt. Gleason Fire Camp, a wildland fire training and deployment facility that is located deep in the Angeles National Forest at an abandoned missile base that, during the cold war, was considered one of the Los Angeles basin’s bulwarks against any nuclear threat.

Mt Gleason Fire Camp is run by the California Department of Corrections and by the LA County Fire Department. It is one of five CDCR wildland fire camps in which adult prison inmates are trained and work as firefighters. The camp guys function in crews skilled in such tasks as aiding in the setting of backfires and clearing fire breaks in the path of advancing flames.

Hall and Quinones were one of a handful of LA County firefighters stationed at Gleason to provide supervision and training for the 105 inmates who were assigned to the camp.

On Sunday, August 30, about half of the Mt. Gleason inmates were already deployed out in the field fighting the various Southern California fires. (According to the CDCR, there are 2,245 firefighting inmates working on fires up and down the state.)

But 55 of the inmates plus three CDCR staff were still back at the camp.They became trapped when suddenly the Station fire came straight at the Mt. Gleason facility itself.

If a fire has the right combination of fuel and wind, it can move faster than a man can run. On Sunday the winds were not the problem. But the fuel was. So as the Station fire barreled toward Mt. Gleason, there was no way to escape it. Hall and Quinones, and other LA County firefighters stationed with them, calmly directed the 55 inmate firefighters and the three CDCR staffers into the cinder-block dining hall, which they deemed to be the only building likely to survive the coming conflagration.

It was a good choice. The fire passed over the cinder block structure, but only barely. As soon as they could, Hall and Quinones moved the group out of the dining hall into a large parking area, which was about the only part of the camp that was now not actively burning.

Yet, fires are volatile and so it was agreed it was necessary to get everyone out of Mt. Gleason camp altogether as soon as was humanly possible. With this goal in mind, Hall and Quinones took off in one of the engine trucks, intending to check out the narrow, winding Three Mile Road to see if it was a viable route to safety.

We know now, of course, that they did not find a safe road out.

Instead the fire found them.

Eventually, the rest of the 57 men were able to somehow make their way down the mountain and out of harm’s way. In the meantime, Camp Gleason burned completely to the ground, with it, the inmates’ very few possessions—pictures, letters and the like. But at least they were still alive.

Once safe themselves, the inmate firefighters learned to their horror that Hall and Quinones —their respected coaches, teachers and the men who had kept them from harm—did not survive.

“These guys were devastated, just devastated,” said CDCR spokesperson, Terry Thornton. “When the firefighters and the inmates work together up in those camps, they all really get to know each other—you know, just as people. These are really cooperative relationships. So they were devastated. A lot of them were out fighting fires, and they didn’t hear until later…”

All at once, Thornton’s voice became thick.

“I don’t want to start crying here,” she said.

LA County Fire Inspector Frederic Stowers echoed her grief and added his own.

“I’d worked with both those guys,”
he said. “They were very well known here. Very well known, very well liked, and well respected.” He too found the need to gather himself.

“They were friends,” he said finally. Then after another pause. “I think the hardest thing is wondering what they went through. ……This is very difficult for us.”

cdcr-firefighters


The photo above was taken in 2007 of another CDCR crew, when I was snapping pictures at the fire base in Malibu.



POST SCRIPT: An hour after I posted this account, I got one of my regular calls from an inmate
doing time at one of the California state prisons. It was a man named Danny Cabral, whom I’ve known for many years.

When guys call, sometimes they have an agenda: they want me to give some message or other to their girlfriend, or their kid or their mother. Most often they simply want to talk, so I make a point of telling them chatty stories about something in my day, just to provide whatever moment of normalcy I can offer.

Danny nearly always fell into the latter category,
so I related the story about Mt. Gleason, the inmates and the tragedy of the heroic fighter fighters.

“I’m glad you told me that,” he said, “even though it’s sad. And I’m glad you’re writing about that stuff. See, a lot of guys I know have been to those fire camps, and risked their own lives to fight fires. And they were glad to do it. Really glad. It makes them feel like they’re doing something that….matters.”

Just then, the recorded 60-second warning message interrupted his words. When it stopped, Danny hastened to finish the point, his voice now soft.

“People need to know that, just because we’re locked up
, it doesn’t mean we aren’t people,” Danny said. “And a lot of us here want to do something good.

He hesitated. “Do you know what I’m saying?” he asked.

I did, I said.

And then the allotted time was up. . The line went blank. We were disconnected.

Posted in Fire, LACFD, Natural Disasters | 53 Comments »