Uniform Solidarity

Annual Mass honoring San Francisco’s first responders began nearly 80 years ago after historic hotel fire

By Christina Gray

On Sept. 10, police officers, firefighters, sheriff deputies, chaplains, paramedics and emergency medical technicians will stand shoulder to shoulder for a group photo at San Francisco’s annual Police-Fire Mass, honoring the sacrifices of first responders.

Framed by two SFFD ladder trucks, the traditional shot represents a solidarity dating back nearly four generations.

The Mass, held this year at St. Anne of the Sunset Parish, continues a tradition of prayer and thanksgiving for the city’s men and women in uniform that began in 1946 when a hotel fire claimed the lives of four young firefighters.

Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone will be the celebrant for the Mass sponsored by the San Francisco Fire Department, the San Francisco Police Department and the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department.

The Police-Fire Mass is distinct from the annual Faith and Blue Mass, which is part of a national campaign that promotes better understanding between law enforcement and public safety workers and local communities.

“This is about first responders and their families in San Francisco,” said Father Michael Quinn, pastor of St. Brendan Parish and a 10-year chaplain with the SFPD. “This Mass is to honor their sacrifices and their families, because the truth is, the family also serves.”

The event has a paramilitary pageantry that begins with the “posting of the colors,” or flags of each agency, and the hoisting of the American flag. “It is very patriotic,” he said.

At the end of the liturgy, one speaker will reflect on his or her career. At the end of the Mass, a bell is rung for each first responder — active and retired — who died in the previous year, as their names are read aloud.

“It never fails to move me that I am a part of this community and this long tradition,” said Captain James Quanico, also of the San Francisco Sheriff’s Office. Captain Quanico, 55, has attended the Mass nearly each of his 27 years of duty.

“We reflect on those who risk their lives on a daily basis in service to the city and county and people of San Francisco,” he said. The past few years have been hard for police officers and other first responders, he admits. “The Mass always renews my faith in this noble profession.”

After the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, the Mass grew to include remembrance for the 343 firefighters, 71 law enforcement officers and a less-specific count of paramedics and emergency workers who died in the attacks. This could include the 110 firefighters who died from cancer or other diseases as a result of toxin exposure.

“I think of that saying, ‘All gave some, some gave all,’” said Father Quinn, of first responders.

The Herbert Hotel fire

SFFD firefighters Charles P. Lynch, 29, John Borman, 35, Albert Hudson, 35, and Walter Elvitsky died in the line of duty on July 30, 1946, when the fully occupied Herbert Hotel went up in flames in the middle of the night. The hotel stood near the confluence of Powell and Ellis streets, a neighborhood of jerrybuilt structures thrown up helter-skelter after the Great Quake in the center of the town’s nightlife area.

This is according to historical accounts at guardiansofthecity.org, a website celebrating the City and County of San Francisco’s Fire, Police, Sheriff and Emergency Medical Departments.

More than 30 others were injured, including 14 other firefighters, in the five-alarm blaze. The more than 200 hotel guests survived due to the heroic efforts of police who arrived first to rouse the sleeping occupants and the 185 firefighters who fought the flames for a full day.

Assistant Fire Chief Martin J. Kearns described the blaze to local reporters at the time as “the worst in Fire Department history, in fatalities, since the fire of 1906” (following the Great Quake).

Lynch had just returned without a scratch after five campaigns in the Pacific during World War II; Borman graduated St. Ignatius High School and left behind a wife and infant when he drowned in a deep pool of water in the building’s kitchen; Hudson, whose pregnant wife was due any day, was crushed under falling debris near a stage where a jazz band had entertained night revelers only a few hours earlier; Elvitsky, whose body was pulled out of the flooded cellar, left behind a wife and a 4-year old daughter.

“My best buddies, I saw them die,” a tearful fellow firefighter, E.J. Russell, told a reporter of being just behind Borman and Hudson.

A funeral cortege of 600 firefighters from throughout the Bay Area left City Hall with four, flag-draped caskets to honor the fallen men. There was no music, not even muffled drums.

Praying together is always a good idea

As a police chaplain, Father Quinn said he prays for the officers or firefighters that respond to an incident, in addition to victims and perpetrators.

“Why do I pray for first responders?,” he asked. “Because I’ve seen them in action. They have seen things most of us can’t even think about.”

First responders need our prayers, no matter what their own faith might be. The Police-Fire Mass brings everyone together for that purpose.

High divorce rates, substance abuse and compromised physical and mental health are some of the hidden dangers of the job, he said. “They have to cope with all of this, but there is no real recipe,” Father Quinn said. “But praying together, for the good of each other, everyone thinks that’s a good idea.”

Acting Capt. Christina Gibbs, San Francisco Fire Dept.

San Francisco native Christina Gibbs has served the San Francisco Fire Dept. and supported the Police-Fire Mass for 25 years.

“To offer your life for someone else is a really big deal in my mind,” the mother of seven said. “Every day that we step into our uniform we are at risk.”

Capt. Gibbs said her faith and her desire to serve help override her fears when faced with dangerous situations.

“My mental strength comes from God,” said the Presentation High School graduate. “When I am in a stressful situation, I always go to prayer.”

She acknowledges, however, the physical and mental toll the work can and does take on firefighters.

Capt. Gibbs is part of a peer support team under the SFFD’s Behavioral Health Unit that includes service dog, Sadie. She and Sadie visit scenes and stations to help first responders decompress and recover from critical incidents.

She said it’s just another way she has been called to serve.

“We always have to keep our ears open for God’s calling,” she said, quoting The Prayer of St. Francis. “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.”

Captain James Quanico, San Francisco Sheriff’s Office

“I was taught that whenever I hear an ambulance, first thing I do is say a Hail Mary for the person in need,” said Capt. Quanico, a 27-year-veteran of the San Francisco Sheriff’s Office, and a longtime parishioner at Our Lady of Mercy Parish in Daly City. “I pray for the strength to deal with something traumatic.”

Capt. Quanico, 55, said he sees a Christian parallel to his work.

“We try to emulate what Jesus Christ preached and that is to take care of thy neighbor,” he said. “Safety and security is our primary objective to protect the innocent, but we still provide resources and guidance to perpetrators.”

A San Francisco native, Capt. Quanico went to St. Thomas the Apostle School and St. Ignatius High School. For 30 years he has coached CYO youth sports with a goal as important as the final score.

“I hope to be a mentor to youngsters who may not get that at home,” he said.

Sgt. Art Howard, San Francisco Police Dept.

Few people know more about the occupational hazards of police work than Sgt. Art Howard. After patrolling the streets of San Francisco for 10 years, he was recruited to run the San Francisco Police Department’s Employee Assistance Program, helping officers and their families deal with the psychological stressors of the job.

As part of its nationally recognized Behavioral Science Unit, the SFPD offers a range of services and resources to its officers, including critical incidence support teams, post-trauma retreats, a robust chaplaincy program and a drug and alcohol recovery program.

A trained drug and alcohol dependency counselor with an advanced degree in psychology, Sgt. Howard has served a total of 21 years with the SFPD.

“Alcohol kills more cops than bad guys and suicides together,” said Sgt. Howard, a San Francisco native and longtime Holy Name of Jesus parishioner. Prayer and meditation, he said, are “so important to counterbalancing the stresses of the job.”

“We’re called peace officers, right? Our job is to keep the peace, and bring whatever peace we have within ourselves to work. That peace can be disrupted by our work by trauma and stress so it’s important to recharge and reconnect to our faith so we can be of service to those around us.”

Assistant Chief David Lazar, San Francisco Police Dept.

Raised in San Francisco by a single mother who worked as a 911 dispatcher, Assistant Chief David Lazar literally grew up in the local police community.

He participated in youth wilderness programs offered by the SFPD and was a police cadet, an apprenticeship of sorts for young people ages 18-21.

“I grew up in a home without a father,” said AC Lazar. “Police officers were like father figures to me.”

The San Francisco native and St. Brendan parishioner joined the force at 21 and has served the SFPD for 31 years. His responsibilities include all 10 police stations, all police investigators, all special operations including marine, local SWAT team, motorcycle unit and the entire San Francisco International Airport.

Raised in Holy Name parish, AC Lazar married a fellow police officer, who retired five years ago. They raised their children in a home anchored by faith.

“When you have a faith in Christ, you put your faith in him,” he said. “You make that your focus, and your family makes that its focus. I think to myself that I could not do this job that is so stressful, seeing as you often do see life at its worst, without my faith in God.”

Christina Gray is the lead writer, Catholic San Francisco.