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Tilson, Task Forces, Trauma: We Remember Watts

Museum Info

Hollywood Museum

1355 N. Caheunga Blvd.
Hollywood, CA 90028
(323) 464 - 2727
SAT 10a - 4p

Harbor Museum

638 Beacon Street
San Pedro, CA 90731
(323) 464 - 2727
SAT 10a - 3p

Off-hour tours available
by special request.

Tilson, Task Forces, Trauma: We Remember Watts

Opening of FS 43 Greater Alarm Gala Draws Near
Watts Riots
Forty years ago, the Watts community of Los Angeles erupted in violence and flames. It proved to be a dramatic and difficult assignment for the Los Angeles Fire Department, and before the city quieted down, a Los Angeles Firefighter was dead and a new system for fighting fires had been implemented - a system still in use today.

The violence was triggered by a simple and fairly common incident, the arrest of a local black citizen by California Highway Patrol officers. CHP officer Lee Minikus arrested 20-year old Marquette Fry for DUI on August 11, 1965. As the arrest was in progress, Fry's mother, coming from their home a few blocks away, began to verbally challenge the arrest. By the time Fry was booked, hundreds of angry Watts residents were in full riot mode, and the city's history was changed forever.

Watts Community Activist Tommy Jacuette expressed the mood in Watts in August of 1965, saying, "I knew the frustration, the hostility, and I knew the attitude of the police - and it was payback time, for the most part." As with most violent incidents, those not directly involved become the biggest victims.

When the riots began, Interim Chief Don Hibbard was vacationing. Deputy Chief Raymond M. Hill was acting Chief Engineer. It should be noted that the violence escalated over several days - and it was on August 13 that things got completely out of control. By 10PM on the 13th, dozens of fires were burning in LA.

As firefighters worked to bring the flames under control, they came under fire themselves. Pump 65 came under gunfire while extinguishing an automobile fire. An Engine 65 firefighter was injured and the rig severely damaged by rocks, asphalt bits, and thrown crowbars and other hard objects. Police attempted to protect firefighters, but they were often pulled in too many directions.

Chief Hill set up a command post at Fire Station 64, which was close to the fires and in an area where multiple LAFD companies could be staged for proper assignment to the quickly spreading series of fires. Hill formed these companies into "task forces" - each task force made up of a truck company and a minimum of two engine companies, all under the direction of a Battalion Chief. Used for certain brush fires and in European firefighting, the task force concept was unusual in US Firefighting. Chief Hill felt the task force would offer firefighters greater projection and would aid in assigning a strong strike force to fires where you could, as Hill said, "move in fast, knock the fire down in a hurry, pick up your lines and make yourself available to another fire."

There were more fires than the city had ever seen at one time before. Assignments were made in the field and companies moved from fire to fire, without returning to staging areas or quarters. So many buildings on 103rd Street were aflame that a local newscaster dubbed it, "charcoal alley."

Late into the evening of August 14, the city was slowing beginning to calm down, as more than 13,000 armed National Guard troops were arriving, but the worst was yet to come... A fire at the huge Shop-Rite Market brought a number of companies - and upon arrival the initial sizeup included three buildings fully involved. Police were needed elsewhere and firefighters dodged bricks and rocks as they worked to bring the fire under control. As the fire companies began to pick up their lines and prepare to move on to the next assignment, the concrete wall and marquee of the Shop-Right Market collapsed, trapping firefighters Warren E. Tilson and Robert Laxogue.

In the midst of a riot, without police protection, and in the dead of night, a rapid rescue began - but was further complicated due to the nature of the material - concrete. Fearing further damage to the trapped firefighters if jackhammers were used, firefighters Malen W. Jacobs of Truck 28 and Frank J. Harrison of Truck 3 edged their way under the concrete and moved, an inch at a time, towards their comrades. Laxogue was rescued, suffering from broken ribs. Tilson was dead, killed by the collapsing wall. Jacobs and Harrison were awarded medals of Bravery. The National Guard, operating under orders of "shoot to kill," quelled the nightmare.

Today, the concept initiated in the riots by Chief Hill lives on. The task force concept has proven highly effective and has evolved, with both heavy task forces and light forces (a truck and a single engine under command of a task force commander) are used throughout the city, with great effect. Firefighter Tilson's name will be added to the new Fallen Firefighter Memorial when it is introduced later in 2005.

For Watts, the results are more mixed. Forty years later, many area residents still remember those hot August nights. One resident, Alice Harris, known to her friends as "sweet Alice" says not much has changed. "Everybody is tense - no jobs, zero tolerance in the housing projects and people are scared of the police," she says. For the LAFD, an ongoing commitment to Watts continues, with constant rescue ambulance support, new fire stations, and a dedication to the community, regardless of time, day, or temperature.


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