When I close my eyes and think about it, it is hard to imagine that 28 years
have passed since the tragic morning of January 4, 1983 when District
Chief Lonnie Franklin was killed while en route to an arson fire on Dowling
near Drew in the Third Ward. Chief Franklin was a brother-in-law to the
Jahnke HFD family (Roe, Claude, Val, and Duke) and uncle to our late fallen
brothers Steve and Jay. He was not only a great fire ground commander, but
also a second father to many of us.
It was a typical busy day at Station 7-B Shift (even without the first responder calls) and we were preparing for a busy night since the weatherman predicted the temperature to dip into the teens. We caught our first working fire during the news and returned to quarters a little after midnight. After the hose change and quick synopses, we were wakened again by the “booper” around 1 a.m. We returned cold and wet and met in the kitchen after another change of clothes. The discussion at the table soon turned from the fire to what kind of boat Chief Franklin was going to buy since his retirement was a couple of months away. After 33 years on the job, he was looking forward to a well-deserved retirement. The last words he said to us were “ let’s get some sleep and talk about this in the morning”. The time was 04:30. At 04:45, the lights kicked on again and the sound of other tones followed. The dispatcher was announcing a box alarm assignment for Station 7, Engines 8 and 25 for a reported house fire at Dowling and Drew. I was the first lineman on the engine that night. I slid the pole and pulled the rope to open the bay door for Ladder 7. I walked out onto the slab while gearing up and could see smoke through the leafless trees. Others began to come down and I told Captain Royce Beck that I could see smoke. When I climbed on the engine, I yelled over to Chief Franklin and his driver, Don Sims, that we had another fire. In those days, as well as today I imagine, it was customary to have the Chief pull out first, then the engine followed by the ladder. However, the strangest event occurred a few seconds later. Whether it was fate or the cold weather, when Don Sims pulled the rope to open up his bay door as it always did in the past, the door went up only a few feet and not high enough to clear the light bar on the Ford sedan. Both Chief Franklin and Don Sims got out of the car and pushed the door open while Engine and Ladder 7 turned right on to Elgin toward the column of smoke. It was a cloudless night as we anticipated our first in arrival in less than a minute. Though we were allowed to standup on apparatus during emergency runs, the cold made me look through glow of the fire through the windshield of the engine.
District 7 sped past while we were on the 59 bridge and they had only a couple of blocks to go before their left on Dowling. Suddenly, there was a flash of light, sparks, and dust and we watched the chief’s car roll over a couple of times. Captain Beck looked at Fire Fighter John Burleson, his driver that night, then back to me and then to Fire Fighter Mike Wedgeworth. We stopped and jumped off the engine. Ladder 7 slowed down and Fire Fighter Thomas Morant jumped off as well. The car was facing west on Elgin with the driver’s side door visible to us. Since it did not look that bad, Ladder 7 continued to the fire. I asked Don if he was ok and he mumbled a few words. I took off my bunker coat and put it over him since he was shaking. I leaned over to give Chief Franklin a few pats on the face to wake him up. He did not respond. Just then, Mike Wedgeworth spoke an “expletive” while standing on the other side of the car. The car door was completely caved in. We stood there for a moment or so in shock when someone said lets pull him out and work on him. We led Don over to sit on a curb and we pulled the Chief out and began mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and CPR. We could hear the sirens of the other companies but wondered “what about us”. We knew help was on the way to Elgin and Hutchins but seconds seemed like minutes. Two ambulances arrived and I remembered seeing Fire Fighter/Paramedic John Crotchett of A-25 intubate the Chief. While we were loading Chief Franklin into the ambulance, the look on Deputy Chief Crowder’s face said it all. They rushed Chief Franklin off, then Don, and then we realized we better check on the other driver. He was complaining, along with a few neighbors, how nobody was taking care of him. He was transported to a hospital. Once Captain Ed Hauck (Captain on Ladder 7, and son in law to Chief Roe Jahnke) found out how serious the accident was , left the fire to go to the hospital. Engine 7 then left the accident scene to go to the fire, which was knocked down by this time, then went back to the station and prayed for a miracle. The remaining crew of Ladder 7 that night, E/O Delbert Burleson and Fire Fighter Gary Pick, made their way back to the station. It was right around relief time that we found out Chief Franklin had been killed.
Though our main focus was on preparing for a funeral for Chief Franklin, we were also interested in pursuing justice for the family as well as his fire department family. Just a few months earlier, the Texas Legislature passed a bill that made it a capital crime when a Police Officer or Fire Fighter was killed in the line of duty during a criminal act. However, the Harris County District Attorney did not want to proceed the case as a capital offense because Chief Franklin was killed en route to the arson fire and not at the scene. In the end, the driver of the other vehicle was found guilty of negligent homicide. He was late for work and sped through the stop sign.
I will always remember how blessed I was to have Chief Franklin as my first Chief right off the tower. I transferred from “ Sweet 16’s” in 1981 mainly to learn the duties of driving a busy chief as well as “first-in” fire ground tactics from him. You could not ask for a better Chief to guide you through "thick and thin." When he complemented you, it was in front of all. If he had to correct you, it was around the corner and not in front of everybody. Many of the highly respected officers we know today, whether active or retired, used Chief Franklin as a mentor. I drove Chief Franklin on Christmas Day where we “snuck off to the Heights” so he could visit his wife. His three sons, Lonnie, Michael, and Thomas, also joined the Houston Fire Department during his tenure. For the members of District 7-B Shift (Stations 7,8,16,25) that fateful night, it took a lot out of us. However, the thought on why the bay door only went up a few feet and stopped, causing that critical delay in response will haunt me until it is my time. May He Rest in Peace.
Bob Parry in Pittsburg, PA (Retired)