By FRANCES SHARPE and ALEXANDRIA BORDAS | Editor-in-Chief/Reporter
The firehouse at Station 69 was full of enthusiasm, big hugs and platefuls of homemade chicken enchiladas and Spanish style rice. The sixth annual Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD) Station 69 Firefighter Appreciation Dinner on Wednesday, Sept. 30 reunited retired firefighters who worked in Pacific Palisades with those currently assigned to the station.
Capt. Mark Gozawa and Jim Nordquist from Station 23 also stopped in to show support for their fellow firefighters.
“We’re all one big family,” Gozawa said.
Laughter and loud joking could be heard while over 60 firefighters bustled around the station catching up with old friends and reminiscing about the craziest things that happened while they were working in the Palisades as well as the most humbling moments.
“It’s like a high school reunion every year because even though they might be too tough to admit it, everyone here misses the guys they worked and lived with while at this station,” said Capt. Thomas Moore.
Here are some of the stories the firefighters shared.
Bob Lostutter retired from Station 69 in 2011 and served the Palisades community for 18 years.
Lostutter said Station 69 was special because of the maturity and experience level of the firefighters as well as the supportive community.
“By the time you are a fireman at 69 you have over 20 years in the field so you have a lot of patience and common sense,” said Lostutter, who now sports a big bushy beard. “The people in this community really appreciate what we did and when we would come to the houses everyone was so grateful, but it was our job to respond!”
Lostutter said reunions are important for the retirees because while working together they all became a family.
“We do what we do because we love it and I would still be doing it today if I wasn’t so old,” Lostutter said with a laugh. “We saved lives together and we have stories within stories that only we can fully understand.”
CAPT. DON HONUS, CAPT. KEN BLIZZARD AND GENE COOPER
For Capt. Don Honus, who worked at Station 69 for 21 years before retiring in 1999, the gathering offered a chance to ’fess up about one incident he still recalls vividly.
While chatting with fellow retirees Capt. Ken Blizzard (worked at Station 69 for 10 years and retired in 1991) and Gene Cooper (worked at Station 69 from 1987-2009 when he retired), he admitted, “One summer night, Ken and I were here and ka-boom! The doors rattled and 30 seconds later, the phone rang and a woman asked, ‘What was that explosion?’”
Deciding to have a bit of fun, Honus replied, “I believe that was a small nuclear device detonated over the Palisades.”
He was just kidding, but the woman didn’t appreciate the humor.
“We received a scathing letter and she also sent it as a Letter to the Editor to the Post,” Honus said.
In those days, he explained, the Post had a policy of printing every single letter that was submitted. “The only way to keep the letter out of the paper was if the letter writer retracted it,” he said.
Honus went to the woman’s home and tried to convince her to retract the letter. “I had to grovel, but she finally retracted it,” he said.
When asked about their most memorable incident, the three retirees didn’t hesitate. They all chimed in at once: “The Wilshire Devon fire.”
“It was right before Christmas,” Cooper said, accurately recalling the Dec. 24, 1989 fire that is still considered one of LA’s most catastrophic residential fires.
“We pulled up and saw this 14-story building [the Wilshire Terrace apartment complex] with fire coming out of every window on one side,” Honus said of the Westwood blaze.
“Embers were flying and sparking fires at other buildings,” Cooper added.
In 1989, the LA Times reported that more than 400 firefighters from about 80 companies joined the effort to extinguish the fire that spread to a total of 13 buildings and two construction sites.
“It was the biggest response to a single fire in terms of manpower and equipment in the history of LAFD,” Honus said.
“I grew up in the Palisades and went to Pali Elementary, Paul Revere and Uni (University) High,” said Dennis Robinson, who graduated from Uni in 1959, just a couple years before Palisades High opened.
“I worked at the original Station 69 before it moved here,” Robinson said, pointing to a photo on the kitchen wall of the original station, which was located on the other side of the street on Sunset Blvd.
With great pride, he said that both of his sons, Steve and Richard, also became firefighters. Richard is with the LA County Fire Dept. in the Palmdale area. Steve was a LAFD helicopter pilot.
“It was March 23, 1998. There was a helicopter crash,” he recalled somberly. “They were transporting a 12-year-old girl to the hospital and the copter’s tail disintegrated. They went down near Griffith Park.”
Three firefighters and the 12-year-old girl perished that day. Steve and a crew chief survived the crash but sustained major injuries.
“He had head injuries and couldn’t be a pilot anymore, so he became a dispatcher,” Robinson said.
Steve died Aug. 9, 2015 at age 49 as a result of ongoing complications from the injuries he sustained in the crash.
“There were about 400 people at his service in Westlake Village,” Robinson said.
Current firefighter Greg Cueto knew about Steve’s passing and offered condolences to Robinson, explaining that he wanted to attend the service but was on a team that was called up to help fight the fires in Northern California.
“I was relaying info about Steve to the firefighters up north,” Cueto said.
Dane Coyle, who recently retired on June 1, earned LAFD’s highest honor, the Medal of Valor, for his [and colleague Ed Strange’s] efforts during a shootout that took place in Marina del Rey. The Medal of Valor is awarded to a sworn member who has demonstrated bravery at great personal risk to his or her own life, beyond a doubt and clearly above the call of duty, whether on or off duty.
But that’s not what Coyle is most known for at the fire station.
His claim to fame stems from one of the most bizarre incidents to occur in the Palisades. In April 2014 a man driving a red Tesla on Pacific Coast Highway stopped in heavy mid-afternoon traffic, climbed through his sunroof, stripped off his clothes and began kung fu dancing in the buff on top of his car.
Coyle was tasked with trying to talk the guy down off the top of his car and a photo of the firefighter paramedic standing with the naked man went viral on social media and made its way around the nation and across the globe.
“That was a wild one,” Coyle said, laughing at the memory.
For Ed Strange, who retired in 2005, it’s the Palisadians he remembers most of his years at Station 69.
“The people here are really special. Brian Shea (Palisades-Will Rogers 5/10K Run organizer) and Bob Klein (see article about Klein on page 3) are two people who are really special.”
The most exciting incident he remembers from his years at Station 69 is a shootout in Marina del Rey, which earned him [and Dane Coyle] the Medal of Valor.
Even though he retired a decade ago, Strange is still thinking up ways to improve rescue operations.
“I think we should have drones that could go up into the trails and locate missing and injured hikers,” Strange said. “I think that could really help.”
Like most of the retirees, Mike Gross said his favorite part about working at Station 69 was the community he got to serve.
“The people in this area are just phenomenal,” Gross said. “I put off coming to this station for so long and then when I got here I was mad that I didn’t come sooner!”
Gross admitted he misses the guys he used to work with and looks forward to the reunion every year.
He added, “As I always say, I don’t miss the circus, but I miss the clowns I worked with.”
Dave Arellano of Station 37 serves the UCLA and West LA VA area. Every few months, Arellano is assigned to work a 10-day shift at Station 69, and he admits it’s one of his favorite areas to work in.
“My station gets calls at all hours and we are constantly on the go, so it’s a different dynamic,” said Arellano, who has been with LAFD 13 years. “When I come to the Palisades I absolutely love it because we get to dig into the community and they really show their appreciation to the firefighters.”
“The people here are so nice. I worked for the fire department for 31 years and of all the areas I worked, the people here are the nicest,” said Carl Debono, who worked at Station 69 from 2006-2008 when he retired. “People would wave to us and bring food to us. I used to jog around the neighborhood and people would wave and say hi.”
Before arriving at Station 69, Debono worked at a number of Stations, including 71 (Bel-Air), 96 (Chatsworth), Downtown LA and 60 (North Hollywood).
“After all those years, I have to say my last two years here were very pleasant.”
Now that he’s retired, Debono is enjoying his time mountain biking, hitting the gym and tending to his dogs.
Robert Espinoza, who came to the reunion with his son Nicolas, worked at Station 69 for about five years before retiring in 2010. He recalled a wild night on Nov. 22, 2004 when Palisadians Ram and Carolyn Miller arrived at the fire station in the middle of the night.
“They were on their way to the hospital to have a baby, but the baby started coming out and they realized they weren’t going to make it all the way to the hospital, so they came here.”
Within minutes, a healthy 8-pound baby girl named “Gigi” was delivered in the alley behind the station.
“We’d never seen anything like that before,” Espinoza said.
Following in his father’s footsteps, Nicolas Espinoza, 22, is a certified EMT and is now applying to the fire academy. He attended the reunion with his dad and listened with a smile on his face while retirees joked with one another.
Espinoza said growing up with a dad who was a firefighter inspired him to pursue the same career.
“I want to create a legacy in a noble field. My father was the first, I will be second and hopefully one day I will have a son or daughter who will also want to be a fireman or fire woman,” Espinoza said.
Current firefighters Billy Barrera and Octavio Silveyra handled the cooking for the Firefighter Appreciation Dinner. Here’s a peek at the menu.
Rice and beans
“LAUSD” coffee cake
Pineapple upside down cake
(The Post brought cookies and brownies)
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