Sound of a Siren
By Marsha Massie
Written, spring, 1976
The loud, demanding sound of a fire siren means different things to different people. There is, however, one group who reacts in unison to that sound – the wives of the fire fighters. And, they react with good reason. Fire fighting is America’s most hazardous occupation. According to the International Fire Fighter, November 1975, over the last ten years, fire fighters have suffered an average of 86 deaths per 100,000 men. These deaths turned wives into widows and left many children fatherless.
Much has been written about these men and their dangerous job. And rightly so. Less has been written about the part their wives have played. Each has a stirring story to tell. This is one of those stories.
I married William A. Massie (Bud) in May of 1961, five days after my high school graduation. During the first weeks of our marriage, we began spending a lot of time with Joe (Alabama) and Betty Jones. Bud and Joe were both assistant drivers on the Dallas Fire Department, working at #15 station in the Oak Cliff section of the city. Betty and I began spending some of the long 24-hour shifts together – sometimes at the Jones home, sometimes at ours.
In the fall of 1961, Joe and Betty had their first child, a daughter. They named her Belinda Gail. The following June, our son, William Robert, was born. We called him Bill, after Bud’s father. Betty and I continued spending some of the shifts together.
August 27, 1963, started out like many other duty days. Bud took Bill and me to Betty’s house, picked up Joe, and then headed for the fire station. Their shift started at 11:00 AM.
This was a special day for Betty. The next day, they were planning to leave for vacation to go see family in Bessemer, Alabama. This was their first trip back home since their marriage. I had never seen Betty so excited. “Marsha”, she said gleefully, “I can hardly wait to show off Belinda!” Belinda was a beautiful baby with huge blue eyes. She was almost 2 years old. Our Bill had just had his first birthday. We had lunch early so we could go shopping before the kids nap time.
Bud and Joe arrived at the fire station about 10:45 AM. “Boy,” Joe said excitedly, I can hardly wait for our trip! I can already taste that mint julep.” In the kitchen, the guys were giving him a good-natured ribbing about the mint julep when the alarm bell sounded. It was closely followed by the downtown dispatchers booming voice “Okay, boys, let’s roll ’em. We gotta house on fire at Ninth and Tyler. Let’s go!” Within seconds, the giant red fire truck was rolling out of the station.
Betty and I finished our shopping and returned home about 1:30 PM. The kids were hot and cranky. We quickly put them to bed. Then I called the station to talk to Bud. Nobody answered. “Well,” I remarked to Betty, “They must be out on a run. He’ll call when they get back.”
I didn’t like not getting an answer. I never did.
The men from #15 were back in the house around 3:30 that afternoon. Captain William J. Jones (no relation to Joe) was pleased with the job his crew had done. Well over half the shift remained, though, and the men were already tired.
Bud told Joe he would call “the girls”. I felt a sense of relief when the phone rang. It was good to hear Bud’s voice.
“Hi Honey”, he said, “what are you gals up to?”
“Oh, I’m just helping Betty get ready for the trip. Did you have a fire?”
“Yeah. A house burned.”
He told me all the dreary details. Fortunately, no one was hurt this time. Before we finished talking, the alarm sounded again. Bud quickly said goodbye, and hung up. I stood there listening to the dial tone.
The kids got up hungry. We had just started supper when the phone rang again. This time it was Joe. Betty answered. “That was a fast fire,” she said. “There was no fire,” Joe grumbled. “It was a false alarm. The police think it’s some kids with nothing better to do.” They talked for a few minutes. Naturally, their discussion turned to the trip.
Back at the station, Captain Jones was concerned about the false alarm. Dallas had been plagued with them for the last two weeks. He was glad the kids would be back in school soon. Maybe then things would slow down. It was August, it was hot, these kids were bored – not a good combination.
The men fixed their favorite supper, steak, gravy, and potatoes. They were able to eat without any interruptions. During the meal, they listened to the radio reports of several more false alarms in the city.
About 8:30 that evening, a couple of police officers came into the station. They had picked up three youths that were suspected of pulling the alarms in the Oak Cliff area. The policemen left after telling the fire fighters that they shouldn’t have any more false alarms. The guys were relieved to hear it. The evening wore on. It was hot, and the men were edgy. Joe thought the shift would never end.
Betty and I put the kids to bed for the night. Belinda went right to sleep, but Bill kept whining and standing up in the baby bed. After the late news on TV, I called the station once again. Bud told me that they hadn’t had any more runs and he was going to bed. Betty talked briefly to Joe about the trip. We would see them in the morning. I love you, good night.
In the spare bedroom where Bill and I slept, he continued to fuss and fret. I got up and laid him down several times. When he finally did go to sleep, he was still restless. I dozed off. It seemed like only a few minutes had passed when I felt Betty shake me.
“Wake up, Marsha. I’ve got to go to the hospital. Joe’s been hurt.” She left the room before I could say anything. On my way out into the hall, I glanced at the clock. It said 2:23 AM. Betty was busy getting dressed. “What happened?” I asked her. Her voice was quivering. “There are some firemen out front. They said Joe was hurt.”
Until that moment, I hadn’t even thought about Bud. It hit me like a bolt of lightening. I ran back into my room and grabbed a robe, and headed outside. Now I could hear the Fire Department radio out front. Standing in the yard was Captain Kenneth Tony, who was riding District Five Chief that shift. Another fireman, Jimmy Blair, was driving him. They were whispering. Trembling, I approached them, and told them who I was. For a moment, they stared at me. Then Blair got in the car and radioed someone.
Captain Tony told me that #15 truck had been in an accident with a police car about an hour earlier. I was crying and asking about Bud. All he would say was that Bud was hurt “pretty bad”, and that I needed to come with them to the hospital, right now. From his facial expression and tone of voice, I feared the worse. Before going back in into the house, I asked about Joe.
“Well,” he said softly, “Joe was killed.”
I reeled back, gasping. He grabbed me to keep me from falling. “There’s no need for Betty to go anywhere right now,” he continued in a slow, measured voice. “We’ve got to tell her. And you must get to the hospital now.” I stood there dazed with disbelief and terror. Captain Tony helped me get myself together. After a few moments, I told him I would tell Betty. He said he would be right behind me.
Inside the house, Betty was bustling about in a daze herself. I braced myself. As she was coming out of the bathroom, I grabbed her by the shoulders. “Betty, I’ve got to tell you something. Joe was in a wreck on the fire truck, and he was killed.” She stared at me. Again, I told her, “Betty, Joe was killed tonight…. I’m so sorry.” I hugged her and she screamed, “NO, we’re going on vacation today! NO!” Her heart wrenching sobs broke my heart. She started saying that it wasn’t true. But, of course, it was. Captain Tony helped me get her to the couch, and he gently told her what had happened, as best he knew at that time.
The alarm had sounded at 12:57 AM on August 27. With sirens wailing, the engine left the station, followed by the truck. Two blocks from the station, at the intersection of Zangs and Davis, a police car hit the truck broadside. It was going somewhere around 85 mph, to intercept a speeding car. It struck just a few feet from where Bud was standing on the side of the truck and Joe was sitting on the turntable. The impact threw them and Captain Jones, who was riding beside the driver, A.E. Chesney, some distance ahead of the truck. All three landed in the middle of the intersection, side by side, with Joe Jones in the middle. The police car was also thrown in the same direction, landing on top of the three fire fighters. Joe and the captain were killed instantly. Massie ended up lodged in the left rear fender wheel of the squad car.
I knew from this that Bud, who had somehow survived, must be in pretty bad shape. A cold fear came over me. How could he have survived if those right beside him had died?
Captain Tony and I tried to comfort Betty. She cried, almost hysterically, as she laid her head on my shoulder. I cried too, partly for her, and partly for myself. Soon, I might be in her situation. The commotion wakened Belinda. She came into the living room, dragging her blanket. She didn’t go anywhere without that blanket. The baby’s presence had a calming effect on Betty. Belinda promptly crawled into her mother’s lap.
Captain Tony told us that a group of wives from the Fire Department Ladies Auxiliary was on the way to Betty’s house. They would stay with her, and look after Bill for me. When they arrived, Betty and I both felt better. We knew they understood, really cared. Willingly, they had left their families in the middle of the night to come to our aid. Although we didn’t know any of them personally, there was a strong bond between us.
Once again, Captain Tony urged me to come with him to the hospital. I hated to leave Betty, but knew I must go. We had started for the front door when the phone rang. Captain Tony answered it, spoke briefly to someone, and then asked me to come to the phone.
“Marsha,” he said. “It’s the Chaplain from Methodist Hospital. He wants to speak to you”. It was as if my heart stopped beating, and time stood still. I was shaking so hard I could barely hold the phone. Had Bud died, too?
“Hello, this is Marsha Massie.”
“Mrs. Massie,” the chaplain said kindly, “I’ve got good news. Your husband is right here, and wants you to
know that he is all right.”
Burning tears of relief and joy flowed down my face. I turned and told everyone in the room what the chaplain had said. Betty smiled, and said she was very happy for Bill and me. I knew she meant it. Within minutes, I was in the Chief’s car headed for Methodist Hospital. As I sat in the back seat feeling great joy and great sadness, Captain Tony told me more about the accident.
As he had told Betty, the police car had hit the fire truck, knocking the three men ahead of the truck, and that the car had landed on top of them. Miraculously, the impact had somehow missed Bud. Also, it had been a false alarm. A FALSE ALARM!
Before being sent to the Joe Jones home, they had been told via radio that both the Jones’s had been killed, and that Massie was expected to be DOA. That explained Captain Tony’s rush to get me to the hospital and his reluctance to tell me much about Bud’s condition. Furthermore, finding me at Betty’s house had been a complete surprise, obviously. Another car had been sent to my house.
This was all more than I could take in. One thing stood out in my mind, though. Bud was alive! I thanked God for that, and prayed for Betty and Belinda, Captain Jones’ family, and the police officers and their families. Overwhelmed is not a strong enough word to describe it all.
We arrived at the hospital at about 3:15 AM. I found myself standing beside a stretcher, and on it was Bud. He was pale and quiet. We talked for a few moments. He didn’t know who had been killed. He suspected it was Joe. I confirmed his fears, and told him about Captain Jones. The driver of the truck, A.E. Chesney, and the tiller man, W.B. Strickland, had also survived. The ER was swarming with police and firefighters along with medical personnel. There was so much blood on the floor , a maintenance man was mopping it up. Men were lying on stretchers. I saw a young woman crying in a private room, and talking to doctors and policemen. I later learned she was the wife of one of the police officers in the car. He had died at the hospital a short time earlier.
I lost count of the firemen who were there, and all the names were running together. A gentleman with gray hair, and in full uniform introduced himself to me. It was Chief Penn, head of the Dallas Fire Department.
He had come to see Bud and the other men involved, and then was leaving to go see Betty, and the other Mrs. Jones. He was grief-stricken over the senseless loss of these fine men.
As it turned out, Bud’s injuries were not life threatening. Shock was his biggest problem. He also had a back injury that ultimately plagued him his entire career, a few bangs and bruises, but was in no real danger. By 6:00AM, he was in a room and resting. So many fire fighters were coming and going that the nurse finally told us that no one was allowed in the room except family. One fireman said that was fine since they were all brothers. By then, Bud’s mom and my parents had arrived. Since Mrs. Massie could stay with Bud, my parents took me back to Betty’s house to be with her, and get Bill. When we arrived, the house was filled with fire fighters, friends and neighbors. Food was stacked everywhere. The original group of wives was still there.
Betty was in her bedroom. With tearful eyes, she told me her plans. Neither she nor Joe had family in Texas. They were all in Alabama and Kentucky. Therefore, she was going to have a service for Joe in Dallas that day. Then she and Belinda were flying to Alabama. Another memorial and Joe’s burial would be there.
How long will you be gone, I asked? She didn’t know. It was sadly ironic. In spite of Joe’s death, they were still going home.
Joe’s funeral service was held at Campbell’s Funeral home, across the street from #15 station, and within sight of the fatal intersection. The flags at all Dallas firehouses were at half-mast. I sat in the family section with Betty and a few close friends. For me, the service passed in a blur. At the conclusion, my heart broke as I watched a large group of uniformed fire fighters pass by Joe’s casket. Many had tears in their eyes for their fallen brother. It didn’t seem real.
My mind returned to the group of fire fighter’s wives who had gathered around Betty. They, too, had shed tears. Tears of grief for her, tears of joy for me, and tears of fear for themselves. Each knew what the sound of the next siren could mean.
*And if, according to my fate,
I am to lose my life,
Please bless with your protecting hand,
My children, and my wife.
*From THE FIREMAN’S PRAYER
Marsha Massie, November 7, 2005