O'Fallon Progress

O’Fallon Fire celebrates 125th anniversary

O’Fallon Mayor Gary Graham joins O’Fallon firefighters Saturday at the department’s 125th anniversary celebration.
O’Fallon Mayor Gary Graham joins O’Fallon firefighters Saturday at the department’s 125th anniversary celebration. mhodapp@bnd.com

Jim Hertzler saw everything you might want to see as an O’Fallon firefighter.

He responded to a C-9 Nightingale crash on old Illinois 158, where three people were killed on Sept. 16, 1971.

The following year he helped fight a 24-alarm fire at Oberbeck Mill in 1972. The original mill was built in 1861, and fire lasted more than 20 hours. This fire is still widely considered as one of the biggest fires in O’Fallon.

Hertzler also fought a fire at the now closed Magna- Fab Ltd. off Betty Lane in 1987. Flames from this fire were more than 100 feet high, and engulfed a manufacturing complex containing tanks of hydrogen and propane, forcing the evacuation of at least 300 people. No injuries were reported, and the evacuees were allowed to return to their homes four hours later. Magna Fab, which manufactured trash containers and tests high-pressure cylinders, was destroyed by the fire, which started shortly before 7 a.m. Smoke from the fire billowed hundreds of feet into the sky and stretched across much of the eastern horizon.

Hertzler, now 71, later helped to write a book for the fire department’s centennial in 1991.

On Saturday, Hertzler joined a handful of other retired O’Fallon firefighters who attended the fire department’s 125th anniversary held at the O’Fallon Fire Headquarters (also known as Engine House 4) off Taylor Road in western O’Fallon.

When he joined the OFD in 1963, he said the volunteer fire department had only three trucks, including a 1940 Mack firetruck a GMC panel truck and a light rescue truck.

At the time, O’Fallon had about 5,000 residents, said Hentzler who retired from the fire department in 1983.

Today, the O’Fallon fire department has 15 pieces of apparatus, including two ladder trucks, and serves over 45,000 in its fire district.

Leroy Hamm, who served on the O’Fallon Fire Department from 1969 to 1996 as a firefighter, and president of the department, visited with Hertzler at Saturday’s celebration.

Hamm says things were all together different when he served with the volunteer fre department. He said when he started with the department, the O’Fallon firefighters might have averaged 50 calls.

The fire department now responds to about 1,000 calls annually.

“But, back then we didn’t have smoke alarms or carbon monoxide detectors,” Hamm said.

O’Fallon also had very little commercial growth in the early 1960s.

“Now, you have a hospital sitting out there (Memorial East) and another one (St. Elizabeth’s) pretty soon, Hamm said. “Those are all calls the firefighters respond to now, which we didn’t have to before.”

When Hamm and Hertzler served on the fire department, all firefighters’ turnout gear was totally different compared to what firefighters wear today.

Hamm said when he joined the department, firefighters wore old rubber coats.

“It was more like a rubber rain coat,’ he said.

Hertzler said firefighters also wore hip boots.

Firefighters also were given two Scott steel air-packs, weighing 15 and 30 pounds. Now the air-packs are made out of fiberglass and weigh considerably less. Fire trucks have also changed a lot over the years.

“When I started, the city was still using a 1940 Mack, which carried 500 gallons of water,” said Hamm said, who with the help of Hentzler and a number of other local firefighters have since restored the truck.