Firefighter recalls harrowing day
March 19 marked the 35th anniversary of the BHS auditorium fire
March 19, 1979, is a day Terry Bowman will never forget.
It was the week of spring break, and all of the 1,710 students at Beaverton High School were gone when the schools auditorium/theater caught fire.
Bowman, a firefighter who worked for what was then known as Washington County Fire District No. 1, was on one of the engines responding to the four-alarm blaze.
Before the day was out, Bowman would be severely burned in one of the worst survivable accidents that a firefighter has encountered in the last three-and-a-half decades among the three fire districts that would eventually merge to form Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue, according to local fire officials. He would suffer second- and third-degree burns over 49 percent of his body.
Still, 35 years later, Bowman clearly remembers the moment-to-moment incident as if it were yesterday.
You know when they say you have a big experience like that, it cements it well into your mind, Bowman, 72, said from his Rockaway Beach home recently. Yeah, I remember every bit of it.
Normally, Bowman, who was then 36, would have remained on the ground, operating the aerial ladder. But that day he wanted to help out, climbing up to the auditorium roof to hand off a chainsaw to his fellow firefighters, so they could ventilate the building.
While he had his heavy turnout trousers on when he ascended the ladder, he didnt have on his turnout jacket, wearing only a short-sleeved shirt.
The fire had been burning for several hours at that point, and firefighters were searching for its source, which ultimately would be traced to a space between the auditoriums roof and a false roof underneath it. The cause would turn out to be a light bulb touching a seat cushion. (See sidebar on upcoming tribute to Beaverton High School drama teacher James Erickson and the anniversary of the fire.)
Once he got up there, he fired up the chainsaw and waited to see if anything else was needed.
In 2011, former Beaverton Fire Department Chief Oscar Sox Lee, who led the department at the time, recalled telling his men to get off the roof! Get off the roof!
By that time, the firefighters at the scene already sensed the roof was about to collapse.
I saw the smoke start coming up from the seams between the roof and the parapet, and just suddenly it back-drafted and happened all at once, and I ran for the edge, Bowman recalled. I knew where the ladder was, and I jumped through a wall of flame.
Engulfed in flames, he made it onto the ladder.
At that point, the roof started to come down and pulled away from the (concrete block) walls and (went) down.
Because his hands and arms were so badly burned, Bowman couldnt use them to navigate down the ladder.
What would etch the memory of the drama into everyones brain was the fact a television station cameraman and a photographer from The Oregonian captured everything on film.
When Bowman got to the bottom of the ladder, firefighters sprayed him down with water. His short-sleeved shirt was completely burned off his body, an iconic photo shows him standing upright tended by fire officials as the auditorium fire still raged in the background.
Art Thurber, a retired firefighter with Beaverton Fire Department Station 267, was the person Bowman handed the chainsaw to.
I was walking toward Terry to get the chainsaw and thats when the roof first opened up and got him, he said. I heard him scream. Then he was gone. You couldnt see him anymore because of the smoke and the fire.
Prior to the fire escalating, Thurber, now 66 and a part-time resident of Pacific City, decided to walk the perimeter of the auditorium just in case he and his fellow firefighters needed a quick escape route. He discovered one at the north end.
Thurber said he remembers Lt. Dave Asher saying something to the effect that they had run out of time.
At that point, all four of the firefighters on the roof went to the north end and jumped from the parapet to a roof over the entrance of the auditorium. The last to jump off, Thurber remembers the intense heat he felt on his legs as he left the main roof just moments before the roof collapsed.
Today, both he and Bowman occasionally hunt and raft together.
Thurber said he doesnt often think of that day, saying some unpleasant memories you want to block out.
That was too close, he said.
Bowmans recovery would take some time, he said. Doctors grafted skin from his legs and put it on his arms. In addition, he had to wear special gloves for two years and compression elastic around his torso.
I know what its like to wear a girdle, he joked.
The suspenders holding up his turnout pants and the chin strap from his helmet protected the skin underneath, so he still has distinctive marks (less so on his chin) to this day.
It melted my glasses, he recalled.
He kept his helmet deformed by the heat as a souvenir to a long and painful recovery.
Bowman recalled too, just how long, hot and dangerous the fire really was. A fellow firefighter later told him he witnessed steam coming out of one of the schools water fountains and a glass wall blowing out.
That was more like an explosion, he said, noting that several firefighters were blasted down the hall by the force.
Because of the video, fire departments across the country still use it as part of training exercises to emphasize the importance of wearing proper protective gear.
Its a bummer to be known forever for a mistake, Bowman said.
Retired Chief Lee talked about how deeply Bowmans injuries affected him.
That was one of the worst days of my life when Terry was burned, said Lee.
One thing Bowman never doubted was that he would return to firefighting, which he did.
Upbeat and positive by nature, Bowman can joke about some of the aspects of his accident today, including the day several Chemeketa Community College students paid a visit to the Progress Fire Station, where he spent most of his career.
They were in training for being (firefighters), and they said, You know, its kind of a dangerous business. We just saw this video of this guy that came down the ladder on fire. And I said, Oh, that was me, and they said, Oh no, it wasnt; this was a young guy.
Return to the scene
Bowman said he eventually went back to look at the destroyed auditorium.
Understandably, it took awhile for him to regain enough courage to once again climb atop a tall structure again. From that point on, he always made sure he was one step closer to the edge of the roof of any future building fires he fought.
Bowman would go on and retire more than 10 years later, working along the way on the fire districts hazardous materials team.
Although his injuries were serious, he said he didnt suffer any long-term health effects.
I dont have any problems, said Bowman. Everything is good and healthy.
Today, with a contract with the city of Rockaway Beach, Bowman and his wife Marilou run the management part of the Nedonna Rural Fire Protection District out of their home, collecting the taxes and making budgets for the special district.
They also run a neighborhood association and are actively involved in the local Lions Club.
And despite his accident, Bowman has never had any regrets about the career he chose, saying everyone is glad to see a fireman.
I was really happy being a firefighter, he said. There is no better job.
Exhibit honors history and the legacy of those who made an impact
As part of the 35th anniversary of the Beaverton High School fire, the Beaverton History Center will host a special exhibit, The James N. Erickson Legacy Project, May 27 through Aug. 26.
The plan is to both recall the devastating four-alarm fire while paying tribute to Erickson, the legendary drama teacher and theater director whose 29-year legacy is still felt by students today.
The exhibit will also focus on the unique collaboration between BHSs theater department and Aloha High Schools program, led for 23 years by Carol Coburn, also a renowned teacher and director.
Michael Shafer-Montgomery, chairman of the James N. Erickson Legacy Project and a 1988 BHS alumnus, is collecting photos, news clips, iconic costumes, scrap books and other items for the project and seeking the publics help.