The St. Louis Fire Department: Then and Now

ST. LOUIS (KSDK) – On this day in 1962, a massive fire was burning at the Ralston-Purina building in downtown St. Louis. And firefighters were not only battling the flames, but also subzero temperatures.

"It was very bitter cold that day. It was something I'll never forget," said former St. Louis Fire Chief Tom Long.

The temperature dipped to -11 that day, causing everything to freeze… from the fire trucks, to the water inside the hoses, to the firefighters themselves.

"You took a breath, your nostrils closed on you. You were gasping for breath all the time," Long said. "It was a long two days, very long two days."

It was two days former Deputy Chief George Jenkerson still talks about with his son, current Fire Chief Dennis Jenkerson.

"Our apparatus was completely frozen in, there wasn't anything we could do with it to get it out at that time," George Jenkerson said.

Since 1962, firefighting technology has come a long way, especially when it comes to the gear that firefighters wear. But even today, when the temperature gets below zero, Chief Jenkerson says that gear only goes so far.

"A lot's changed, but a lot has remained the same as far as the conditions we have to operate in," Dennis Jenkerson said.

Just like the generation before them, crews this week have faced freezing water lines, spending hours outside in the bone-chilling temperatures, and air so cold the water they're using to fight the fire becomes a challenge in and of itself.

"Your face stings. Once the water hits you it freezes immediately. Your ability to move is reduced because you're covered with ice," Dennis Jenkerson said.

And so while the trucks and the gear may have evolved over the years, the motivation to keep fighting the flames has not.

"We were not expendable, and that was the bottom line, and why we stuck together," George Jenkerson said.


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