25 YEARS AGO ON AMBERGRIS CAYE BY ANGEL NUÑEZ
Fighting Fires In The Past
As soon as the recent fire was over, someone asked me: "Okay Mr. Twenty Five Years Ago, tell me how were fires put out 25 years ago?" I am not certain if the person wanted to ask me if it was different or if it was done with buckets and in that sense no different from today. But here are two incidents with fires as I recall them in the 1950's and early 1960's.
The first one was in the late 1950's. It was close to Christmas time and at that time they used to sell these sparklers called "estrellitas" or little stars. The kids used to love playing with estrellitas. We would light them up and run along the street and enjoy the sparkles flying over the place. Other kids used to fling the estrellitas up in the air and enjoy their falling. Well, one fell on the roof of a lady's house and the thatch roof quickly started catching fire. No sooner than the villagers notice this than the alarm went out that Doña Lucia's house was on fire. The building was right where San Carlos Medical place is located. It only took about ten to fifteen men with buckets of water to put out the fire. They hauled water from neighboring wells and rushed to the little house. The fortunate thing is that the building was only like ten by ten feet and the roof was no higher than seven feet. They could get close enough because the heat was not intense and the water splashed right on the roof. In five minutes time, all the excitement was over. I say excitement because the people all got excited and to put out a fire was like finishing up with all the fun. You know people, especially boys, they like to see a fire. Once it is put out, the fun is over.
The other fire happened in the night. There was a documentary film being shown at the local school where the Catholic Church presently is located. Suddenly the word went out that Don Adriano's house was on fire. Apparently some sparks from the fire hearth were blown up to the thatch roof and it caught on fire. Anyway, it was chaos and hell to come out of the single door at the school. Some people's dresses were torn, while others came out with one shoe. There were men jumping out through the windows all in haste not to miss out on the excitement. And how was the fire put out, exactly like the previous one except that they got water from the sea which was nearby. In a few minutes, there was sadness in the village because the fire was put out and the excitement and fun was over. After that everyone laughed and went about their business. There was no damage except the burnt thatch roof which was replaced the very next day.
Late in the 1970's a large two-story building and the village clinic located right in front of the primary school were totally destroyed. That one was the first big wooden fire we experienced in San Pedro. It was said that a gringo living in the house lit the house in his drunkenness. Their dog and a parrot died in the fire. The public clinic was destroyed and we experienced our first real battle in trying to put out fires with buckets. Some two hundred men and women fought the blazes and tried to prevent it from spreading. It almost crossed over to Ruby's Hotel, but the men fought really hard. After that the efforts began to try to get firefighting equipment.
Our leaders and representatives have done a good job at obtaining equipment. Government has not done a bad job in helping us. Unfortunately today, we are still using the bucket system for there have been flaws in the system. In this last fire, not even the siren was used to wake up the people. For the next fire, please ring the bell frantically as was done 25 years ago, and please rush to the scene with your buckets. If you will only go to criticize or watch, please stay home.
Let me first talk about our group of 100% volunteers. Norman Eiley was our appointed Fire Chief, and he was joined by Jose Gonzalez, Miguel Alamilla, Genaro Nuñez, Francisco Verde, Dimas Guerrero and Yours Truly. We were simply invited; don’t think there was any physical test. But indeed they all had to be strong as you will find out later on. We were all family men and left time from our home schedule to go to fire drills every Monday evening at 4 p.m. This was a duty which we took seriously and were very responsible and consistent. We drilled with one or two or even three live hoses by branching off with a splitter. We drilled at every possible spot at the lagoon or seaside where we placed our five-inch suction hose. At times we set patches of garbage on fire and drilled on it. Once Captain Eiley had us build a palm leaf house and he lit it early one night about seven p.m. to try out our whistle communication system and our siren as well.
This is why I said that the men had to be strong. Our portable pump was an extremely heavy piece of equipment. It must have weighed about five hundred pounds and we had to get it out of Miguel Alamilla’s downstairs and placed it, with much groaning, on a land rover vehicle. Then we had to haul it with man power to the waterside, set it leveled and cranked it. The rolling out of the hose was easy and fun, but holding it steady and aimed at one spot was a bit hectic. We were taught to let go of the hose and be able to stabilize it from dangling dangerously from right to left. After a hour or so of drilling, we had to get the water out of the hoses while rolling them and then returned all the equipment to its storeroom. Finally we had to oil the equipment after the drill and leave it ready for the next drill or real action.
The fire service tested its capabilities on a few real incidents. One house was totally burned down even though we got there promptly but the house was already 75 percent on fire. I say we were efficient.
After our first group, another group followed under Captain Eddy Halliday. They responded to one major fire very professionally and efficiently but the portable pump would not prime and failed to fill the hoses. Three houses were totally destroyed including Fina’s Store and Coral Cable Television Station. The worst part was that one person was burned to death in this fire which was put out by the grace of God and a lot of willpower and man power and the bucket brigade. This was when San Pedro found out of the need and started lobbying for a good fire truck.
San Pedro has indeed made great strides in its fire service. Hats off to its pioneers who led the way and thank you to our present staff and volunteers. Twenty Five Years Ago salutes you all.