By Audrey Fraizer
Theatergoers spilling into the sidewalks from late-night performances watched with breathless fascination the heroic drama of firemen struggling on ladders to the third-story-window of the Shramm-Johnson drug company building in downtown Salt Lake City. But in minutes, their fascination turned to horror as firefighter Merrick D. Blake fell backward from the ladder on the windy cold night of Feb. 7, 1936, plunging 35 feet to the pavement below.
Blake, 44, died that afternoon from injuries sustained in the accident, having gained consciousness only once during the next 14 hours under a doctor’s care at a local hospital. He had no recollection of the major fire or slipping from a top rung of the ladder iced from water spraying pout of a hose hooked to pumps on the truck.
The fire that is believed to have started in the second-floor beauty school was the first time the entire fire depertment-110 firefighters-had been called out for one incident. Three other firefighters in Utah and fourth in LODD for the Salt Lake City Fire Department (SLCFD).
The 13-year veteran of SLCFD and city native was eulogized three days later at a funeral followed by a procession to the Salt Lake City Cemetery. The Police Glee Club and musician friends of Blake’s daughter, Beth, a well-known localvocalist, led the mourners in song.
A similar ceremony to honor the firefighter was held 80 years later, on Feb. 7 2016, by Salt Lake City firefighters who gathered at the corner where a bank office building stands in place of the drug store and beauty school. The sound of fire sirens heralded the afternoon memorial and SLCFD Dispatcher Paul Runnoe gave the Last Call, announcing, “Firefighter Blake was critically injured after falling approximately 35 feet off an icy ladder.” A wreath was hung on the south side of the building near where Blake fell.
The SLCFD memorial is a relatively new tradition started several years ago to commemorate each of the city’s 13 firefighters killed in the line of duty between the years 1920 and 2012. Markers have been placed at each site, and the SLCFD plans to honor individual firefighters every five years on the anniversary of their deaths.
SLCFD Captain Chris Milne said it’s important to learn the history of firefighting and recognize the firefighters who have died in the Line of Duty.
“We felt like we needed to know about our history and the firefighters who went on before us and paved the way for us,” he said.
One of the most destructive fires in SLCFD history occurred on May 19, 1943, when three firefighters were crushed under a falling balcony in a blaze ultimately destroying a once-opulent theater in downtown Salt Lake City and, coincidentally, on the same block as the fire that took the life of Blake seven years earlier.
Three months after that fire, then-Fire Chief Le Vere M. Hanson was demoted from Chief to Captain following a city investigation citing negligence on the part of superior officers in active charge combatting the fire, resulting in the firefighters’ deaths. Although a report by the National Board of Fire Underwriters vindicated Hanson, he resigned in protest of commission’s actions.
The states’ 29 other firefighter casualties over the same period (1920-2012) include county and city fire departments, en route aviation services, and federal national forest and land management agencies operating within the state. While structute fires dominated the cause of LODD through the mid-1950s, the source has since shifted to causes related to wildland and grass fires.