By Mary O’KEEFE
A firefighter’s red turncoat made of metal is draped over a hidden hook, a yellow hat rests on top the coat. In one simple, eloquent and understated work of art an emotion of pride and respect is conveyed.
On March 7, artist Michael Kalish unveiled a monument he created dedicated to retired Glendale firefighter and burn survivor Bill Jensen.
Glendale Fire was assisting on the Calabasas Malibu fire in 1996. According to reports at the time it was a wind driven fire. Jensen and five other firefighters were injured during the course of fighting the blaze. Jensen was burned over 70% of his body.
“This hand [was just bone] when I walked off the side of the mountain,” Jensen said of his left hand. “[Firefighters] that saw me said they had never seen anyone burnt [so badly] still walking. They took me down the road, put me on the helicopter and gave me morphine for the pain.”
His clothes had to be cut off of him. He still has the turncoat and hat that he wore that day. It was those pieces of clothing that inspired artist Kalish.
Kalish visited the Jensens and saw the coat. He found a California fire engine and cut and welded it into the monument.
“Michael did a wonderful job. It is an honor but it is not me it is honoring. It is the fire service as a whole. [Those] that go out and risk their life everyday to make the world better,” Jensen said.
The unveiling was a surprise for Jensen and his family who thought they were just coming to Glendale Fire Station 21 to see the finished project. What they found was family, friends and co-workers all waiting to share in honoring Jensen.
Retired Glendale firefighters Paul Phillips and Don Biggs were working the day Jensen was burned.
They had seen the television news reports of Jensen’s injuries when a call came to respond to a fire in the La Crescenta area.
“It was near the [Foothill] 210 Freeway and Lowell [Avenue],” Biggs said. “Behind the [Foothill] Athletic Club.”
Glendale was assisting the Los Angeles Fire Department. Phillips’ station was responding to the La Crescenta wild fire. Biggs was on his way to UCLA to act as liaison between Jensen’s family and the media.
“I was called back to La Crescenta,” he said.
Phillips said it was a wild fire and it was windy. He and fellow firefighters saw how the wind was affecting the fire.
“There was a fire wheel,” he said. “It was as if the devil was in the air that day.”
Phillips and Biggs said it was surreal to watch television reports about Jensen’s injuries then to be fighting a wind driven wild fire and, later, to be at a park for a mass meeting about Jensen with the chaplain.
For Jensen the fight was just beginning. He said that for the first three hours he wasn’t expected to live. He was transferred from UCLA Medical Center to the Grossman Burn Center in Sherman Oaks. Dr. A. Richard Grossman was his physician.
“I have my husband because of you. I really truly believe that,” said Sue Jensen to Dr. Grossman who was at the unveiling.
Jensen went through thousands of surgeries and skin grafts. His family and fire family were always close by with support. They arranged for Sue to have a trailer at the hospital so she would be close by at all times.
“It is not like a broken bone. I have scars all over my body but the world took time out for thought and prayer,” Jensen said.
He, with his wife at his side, speak to audiences at places like churches, schools and burn centers. They share an uplifting and positive story of survival. Jensen works with Firefighters Quest for Burn Survivors, a non-profit organization managed by firefighters and civilians to assist those affected by burn injuries.
For information or to visit www.firefightersquest.org.
The art piece is on display at Glendale Fire Station 21, 421 Oak Street in Glendale.