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Fallen firefighters honored during memorial

Published: Sunday, May 19 2013 6:21 p.m. MDT

A wreath is laid at the site. Three fallen firefighters who lost their lives 70 years ago during the Victory Theater fire are honored Sunday, May 19, 2013 by the Salt Lake Firemen’s Relief Association during a memorial service on the site at 48 East 300 South in Salt Lake City.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — A 1931 Mack firetruck was parked on streets wet from rain Sunday morning outside a building that once housed Victory Theater.

The truck was one that firefighters used to respond to a fire at the theater 70 years ago to the day, that resulted in three responding firefighters killed and 10 injured.

Dozens of Salt Lake and Murray firefighters stood at attention as a bell sounded at 8:24 a.m. sharp at 48 East 300 South, signaling the time of the fire call, as part of a memorial service for those killed in the fire, put on the by the Salt Lake Firemen's Relief Association.

"It really stirs your emotions," Salt Lake City fire chief Kurt Cook said.

Firefighters have many traditions, he said, and Sunday's events were part of a new tradition to honor firefighters who have fallen. He said it was the "noble thing" to do.

Firefighter Jared Schreiner read a history of the Victory theater fire and introduced fellow firefighter Kyle Lavender, who said the memorial was not only to honor former firefighters, but also their families.

Lavender is the great-nephew of Theron Johnson, who was killed as a result of the fire, and grandson of Grant Walker, of one of those injured while responding to the fire.

"It's really special to me to know that their sacrifice is still being honored," he told the Deseret News.

A bell sounded each time firefighter Myke Workman read the names of those who were killed in the fire.

"Harry Christenson."

"Lieutenant Melvin L. Hatch."

"Theron D. Johnson."

Firefighter Mike Stevens and Captain Mark Bednarik placed a floral wreath, laden with three metal plaques with "FD" carved into them, on a stand outside where the theater was housed. They stood on either side of the memorial as Honor Guard for the fire department, as a bagpiper played "Going Home."

Particle board graffitied with images of a red-leafed tree, the Cheshire cat and Humpty Dumpty on a wall covered long-abandoned store fronts. The ordinary passerby would not have known that 70 years earlier, the building space housed a Vaudeville-turned-movie theater.

Victory was built in 1908 and underwent remodeling in May 1943. On May 19, 1943, one of the men working on the remodeling pulled the fire alarm at Victory Theater after he smelled burning and saw several auditorium seats on fire, according to Steve Lutz, assistant director of the Utah Fire and Rescue Academy at Utah Valley University.

Lutz wrote a history of the Victory fire that was published in Utah Historical Quarterly, and he attended Sunday's memorial service.

On the day of the fire, Salt Lake City fire crews responded to a fire alarm just before 8:30 a.m. They were not aware of the building conditions that made it easy for flames to spread unseen.

The seating area in the theater was held up by a wooden structure sitting on the ground, under which was a space for wiring and ducting.

A balcony sat over the seating area, supported by a steel beam and posts encased in hollow columns, and set into the wall pockets with wooden joists.

On the day of the fire, the flames traveled from below the seating area, inside the hollow columns and up to the balcony. Heavy projector equipment sat on the balcony that had not been updated to support the weight. The fire, unseen in the balcony area by responding firefighters, soon consumed the supporting joists, causing it to collapse on those below.

Old equipment, poor organization among firefighters and lax fire codes contributed to the destruction, Lutz said.

In spite of those who were killed and injured, some good came from the fire, Lutz said, including stricter fire codes for building in Salt Lake City. In addition to this, new fire chief, J.K. Piercey, updated the equipment, training and organization of firefighters.

Members of the Honor Guard stood by the memorial until 10 a.m. The memorial will stay up for one week.

Email: wevans@deseretnews.com

Twitter: whitevs7

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