North Penn Volunteer Fire Company Fire Fighter Dies While Fighting a Brush Fire 50 Years Ago.
The first part is Rita Proud’s account of her father’s life and moments leading up to his death. The second part is article from The Reporter the following day. Thank you to everyone involved for helping to share this story especially Rita Proud, her family, and her cousin Bill Clark (current North Penn Fire Company Battalion 62)
November 1st 1964 – “50 years ago today the siren atop North Penn Volunteer Fire Company sounded,” recalls Rita Proud, who grew up on Shear Street in North Wales with her two sisters, Terry and Susan, her mother, Pearl, and her father, LaForrest, who went by the nickname Hugh.
Hugh grew up in Hebron, Nebraska. He joined the navy right after high school, and while on leave, he married Pearl. After the navy, the couple settled down in North Wales to start a family. Hugh went to work at Merck, Sharp, and Dome and stayed active in the community, playing softball and volunteering as a fireman. Rita remembers that her father would leave for Merck in the mornings and come home at night, but she always thought of him first as a fireman.
On Monday nights at 6 o’clock sharp, her father attended drill. “He would never miss drill night. They would do different things like collect fundraising cards left on door knobs. The cards would have slots for quarters,” Rita states.
As a child, Rita was surrounded by firemen. Their next door neighbor, Dal Hartman, served with her father, and like many of the men in the company, Hugh donated his time to bartend at the North Penn Social Club. Often times, he’d bring Rita along, and she would sit at a table with other kids while the adults talked. “It was a big deal at that time, going with your parents to the social club,” Rita recalls, fondly.
Firemen were held in high esteem by the neighborhood children. “When the siren sounded you knew to get out of the street to let the firemen by. The firemen would get to the fire house, grab their boots, jackets, and gloves, and off they went,” Rita says. “The kids would chase after them and watch the trucks go on to a fire call.”
Early in the morning of November 1st, 1964, a few days before the presidential election, Rita and her sisters dressed in their Sunday best. Later, to show their support for the Democratic Party, the girls posed with their parents for a photograph around a sign that read: Johnson/Humphrey for the USA.
Hours after that image was captured, the siren that would ultimately change Rita’s life sounded. Dutifully, her father hurried off for the firehouse. Several excited and curious neighborhood kids followed.
“The one rule was you were not allowed to cross Main Street once you got to firehouse,” stated Rita. “The firemen would write on a chalk board the location of the fire and what type of incident.” Once the trucks roared off, the older kids would run across Main Street and announce the board. That afternoon, it was a field fire. The gang of kids disbanded and returned to their separate activities.
According to The Reporter’s original article, published on November 2, 1964, Hugh responded to “a brush fire near the Merrybrook section, south of North Wales…in a wooded area between Upper Valley Road, in Upper Gwynedd Township, and Ninth Street in North Wales.” Hugh advanced at the fire “with an Indian tank strapped to his back,” but was “enveloped…before he realized it.”
Later that evening there was a knock on the door. Dal Hartman was among the men that brought Rita and her family the terrible news. Her father perished, fighting the blaze.
After her father’s passing, Rita remembers the overwhelming support from the fire company. “I would not know where I would be today without the support of Dal Hartman, his family and North Penn. Dal Hartman became a father figure to me, and I loved him very much, and Dal’s daughter Karen (Gillespie) was like a sister.”
To this day, Rita and Karen remain close. “It was a real family atmosphere at the firehouse. That’s what made it so great.”
“My mother worked hard to provide for my sisters and me,” Rita recalls. “I am so proud of my father. I know he is looking down on us, very proud of his family and friends.”
Rita knows her father is a true hero. She has never forgotten that fateful day. “When I hear the fire whistle go off, I pray. I pray that everyone gets home safe.”
Part II – Article from The Reporter Nov. 2nd 1964
FIREMAN DIES WHILE FIGHTING BRUSH BLAZE
A North Wales fireman was burned to death in a brush fire near the Merrybrook section, south of North Wales, yesterday afternoon. Police say the blaze which took the life of thirty – four – year – old Hugh Rhodes apparently was started by four boys, who threw blazing sticks into the eight-foot high underbrush. The fire was located in a wooded area between Upper Valley Road, in Upper Gwynedd Township, and Ninth Street in North Wales.
Trapped in Fire
A witness to the fire suffered a burned hand and North Wales Fire Chief Walter S. Gilmer, also received hospital treatment for smoke inhalation after their heroic efforts failed to save Rhodes. The victim was the father of three children and an employee of Merck Sharp and Dome, West Point. Rhodes who lived at 123 Shear Street, was pronounced dead at the scene of burns over his entire body. He was examined by Dr. Wilbur D. Anders, North Wales.
According to the story pieced together from police and firemen’s accounts, Rhodes responded to the fire alarm at 2:44 pm yesterday. North Penn Fire Company Chief found the area of thick undergrowth in a fiery gasp of fast spreading blaze. Police and firemen said Rhodes entered from the ninth street path, with an Indian tank strapped to his back. Police believe the fire which was advancing toward Rhodes enveloped him before he realized it. The fire was described as “very hot and quite smoky.” It appeared that once trapped in the fire, Rhodes made a valiant effort to find his way out. But he fell about ten to fifteen feet short of the southern limit of the blaze. Evidence indicated he crawled about fifty feet toward the edge of the fire.
A witness who had walked about a half-mile from his home. James L. Allen, fifty-one, of 201 Hibbert Road in the township told firemen later that he heard someone in the fire call, “Help me!” He thought it was one fireman asking another for assistance. Then he heard the please again and saw Rhodes in the midst of the fire. Allen immediately went to Rhodes assistance and finally dragged Rhodes’ body out of the flames. Chief Gilmer and an assistant chief, Dallas Hartman, were also searching for the stricken fireman.
Allen and Gilmer were taken to North Penn Hospital in the Lansdale Volunteer Medical Service Corps ambulance. Allen received treatment for the first degree burns of the right hand, while Gilmer was treated for smoke inhalation. Both men suffered from shock. Rhodes’ body was taken to the C. Henry Longenecker Funeral Home North Wales. The fire was extinguished in a half hour. Upper Gwynedd Township Police Chief Benjamin Cairns said last night his department questioned and took statements from the youths. A report will be filed with Chief Montgomery County Juvenile Probation Officer Anthony Guarna, at Montgomery Hall. He said any disciplinary action if instituted it will originate from Guarna’s office.
Chief Cairns said the boys admitted starting a bonfire in the area, and then throwing flaming sticks into the underbrush. The names and ages of the youth were not revealed by police.
Investigating officers are Patrolmen William Herr and Paul Hunsbereger, and chief Cairns of the Upper Gwynedd Department: Patrolman James Warden of North Wales police, and Policeman John Kaelin of Lower Gwynedd police. A native of Hebron, Neb. He is survived by C. and Ida Rhodes, Hebron; his wife, the former Pearl Eckhart; three daughters, Theresa Ann, twelve; Rita Jeannette, ten, and Susan Gail, six, all at home, and three sisters, Mrs Beverly Kessler, Mrs. Weymouth Dittner, and Mrs. Shirl Wissing, all of Lincoln, Neb
Lower Gwynedd Policeman John Kaelin was a life member of North Penn Vol. Fire Company. His son Bill is also a life member and active with the department.
Dal Hartman joined North Penn in 1950 and in his early years was an active participant in the baseball and bowling leagues. He served as Assistant Chief from 1958 to 1975 and then as Chief from 1976 to 1981. He also served as President on the Board of Directors of the Fire Co. He worked for the North Wales Borough and he served as Fire Marshal Deputy in 1992 and Fire Marshal/Code Enforcer from 1993 to 2011. Dal passed away on August 27,2011
Karen (Hartman) Gillipse is still an active member of the department along with her husband Tom
From the National Fire Protection Association more than one-quarter (26.5%) of all fire ground firefighter fatalities resulted from wildland fires or prescribed burns.
Hugh Rhodes is the only line of duty death from North Penn.
Today Rita likes spending time with her grandkids and still donates some of her time to North Penn.
- Jim Gray
North Penn Vol. Fire Company, Nov. 1st 2014