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Seven local firefighters to be honored in state memorial

By Jia-Rui Chong Daily Planet staff
Thursday March 28, 2002

Seven Berkeley firefighters will be honored in a memorial that will be unveiled next week commemorating California firefighters killed in the line of duty. 

The memorial in Capitol Park, Sacramento will feature a wall inscribed with the names of 855 firefighters and two bronze statue groups.  

The statues were cast at Massi Artworks, a foundry in Berkeley. 

The timing of the project’s completion, only six months after the events of Sept. 11, makes the memorial particularly emotional, said Bill Ortman, whose father, Charles Ortman, is one of the firefighters to be honored. 

“It was started before Sept. 11, but now it’s more important after all of those firemen were killed. Being a fireman is finally being recognized as the job of heroes. It used to be, ‘Oh, you’re a fireman. What’s the big deal?’” said Bill. 

Berkeley Fire Capt. Gil Dong, who is one of the Bay Area’s representatives to the statewide organization California Professional Firefighters, said the effect of so many deaths in New York can still be seen in the Berkeley fire stations.  

“The number of people killed in New York was three times our department as a whole, so it’s like losing the department three times,” Dong said. 

“You see people depressed, quiet, keeping to themselves. You have to keep reminding them to talk about their feelings, tell their loved ones that they love them.” 

This memorial is another way to deal with the grief, said Dong, who worked with CPF to create the memorial. 

“For me it’s like seeing the Vietnam Memorial and the Korean Memorial in [Washington] D.C. As firefighters, on a day-to-day basis, we accept the possibility that we may not be here tomorrow. So I think it’s important to think that someone remembers that you gave your life to keep the community safe,” said Dong. 

Bill, 82, still vividly remembers his father Charles’s inspirational sense of duty. A bell used to ring all the time in the Ortman house, tapping out the number of the firebox that had been pulled. 

Bill said the blaze that killed his father in 1939 occurred across from their home. After pulling out two children and the old man who started the fire by smoking in a closet, Charles had gone back in. 

“He must have inhaled smoke, because he staggered out and then he died,” said Bill. 

The funeral was the biggest funeral in the city of Berkeley at the time, Bill said. He is proud that another organization is honoring his father’s 20 years of work. 

“I would love to go see the memorial, but, health-wise I can’t. I’m hoping I can get over it so I can go,” said Bill. 

Dong said that about a dozen firefighters are planning to attend the April 6 opening to remember Berkeley’s firefighting history. In addition to Ortman, the other Berkeley honorees are James Kenney, G. Sydney Rose, Ernest Maxwell, John Ray Hutton, Edward P. Clarridge and Jack Alan Rinne. 

The $2 million memorial was funded by the California Fire Foundation, contributions from firefighters’ unions, special firefighters’ license plates, and a state tax check-off. 

A golf tournament fundraiser in the Bay Area in 1999 that netted $12,000 was one of the main contributions, said Dong.