January 15, 1972
Little Rock Fire Department (AR)
Number of Line-of-Duty Deaths:
Fire erupted at a commercial building on the northwest corner of 3rd and Main Streets on Friday, January 14, 1972, at 11:15 pm. The blaze started on the second floor at the Pfeiffer-Blass Candie Kitchen warehouse above the LaFrance Beauty Salon. Shortly thereafter at 11:24 pm, Box Alarm 133 was sounded—bringing the Little Rock Fire Department to the scene to find heavy smoke coming from the second floor.
The fire spread into the void space and raced down a third of the block as the fire grew to seven-alarms. Over sixty firefighters battled both the fire and the bitterly cold temperatures for four over hours.
As firefighters operated hand lines, Truck 4 was positioned on 3rd Street, using its aerial ladder nozzle. Firefighter Gene Tucker, who was belted to the ladder, operated the nozzle to hit the flames that were coming through the roof. Below on Truck 4’s turntable, Driver Jerry Jacobs was helping Firefighter Ray Cross put on a ladder belt so that he could climb the icy ladder to relieve Firefighter Tucker.
At 3:29 am on Saturday—just as the fire was under control and was nearly out—firefighters heard a rumble and then a loud crack. Chief Davis, who was at his car at 3rd and Main, had just finished talking on the radio. He heard the rumble too. But just as he turned and shouted for the crews to evacuate, there was a sudden collapse. After hours of pouring water into the structure, the south wall of the building collapsed onto Truck 4 and the firefighters working the hose lines below.
In that instant, a fire that was under control turned into the department’s worst nightmare.
- Firefighter Jacobs, who many witnesses say could have jumped to safety, instead reached back to the controls to move the ladder—and Firefighter Tucker—away from the falling bricks.
- Firefighter Tucker was injured by the flying debris but was still belted to the ladder. Meanwhile, Firefighters Jacobs and Cross were struck by a wall of bricks and thrown from the turntable below.
- Just below the aerial ladder, Firefighter Oliver was struck by the blast of bricks and burning materials where he stood.
The scene turned to chaos with injured and missing firefighters. Severed hose lines turned the already slippery ground into sheets of ice. These conditions on the ground prevented a fast retreat to safety.
After the collapse, Chief Jack Davis called for every available suppression unit and ambulance in the city to respond to the scene. Everyone jumped in to help and dug bare-handed through the debris to find the missing and help the injured firefighters cried out for help. Chief Davis noted, “All our men rushed to the scene to help. The Arkansas Gazette Circulation Department was pretty well there in full force and many of them assisted us. The American Red Cross had two canteens on the scene from the beginning and were there when I left today (Saturday). They assisted us with the injured persons. The Police Department also dropped everything and reverted at this time to life saving.”
The rescuers found Firefighter Eric Eugene Oliver (Engine 5) and Firefighter Jerry Joseph Jacobs (Truck 4). Injured firefighters Ray Cross, Phil Filiatreau, Tommy Allen, William Hallenbeck, Charles Gilmer, and James Penny were taken to the local hospital. Firefighters also worked hard to rescue injured Firefighter Gene Tucker from the damaged and iced-over ladder.
Veteran firefighters and the Chief commented that this tragic day was “the worst fire they could recall.”
- Immediately following the tragedy, members of the Little Rock Fire Department and the Commercial National Bank established a City of Little Rock Fire Department Memorial Fund to care for their families.
- On May 1, 1972, the department dedicated apparatus in their memory. During a ceremony at Station 4, Chief Jack Davis presented bronze plaques to the widows of Firefighters Jacobs and Oliver.
- Eric Oliver’s plaque was mounted on Engine 5, which he drove to the scene the night of the fire. The plaque for Jerry Jacobs was mounted on the new ladder truck that replaced the one that Jacobs drove, which was destroyed in the collapse.
Later, on October 22, 1973, at the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) Convention in Baltimore, Maryland, Firefighter Jerry Jacobs was posthumously honored with the National Fire Industry Award sponsored by Ward LaFrance. Jacobs was among eleven other firefighters who were nominated for their bravery from New York, Michigan, New Jersey, Missouri, California, and South Carolina.