With tearful pride, E.C. girl remembers firefighter father set to be honored

March 24, 2002



Staff Writer

When Sonia Gomez thinks of her father, she remembers him with pride both for the way he lived his life and the way he gave his life.

It's been 26 years since her father, David Gomez, an El Centro firefighter, died while trying to save others.

Still, the tears come as she speaks of the man who was 25 when he died leaving behind a daughter, Sonia, who was 3 and a son, David Jr., who was 2.

The year was 1976.

Two and a half decades later her father will be one of two El Centro firefighters, one Calexico firefighter and an El Centro man who was a member of the California Conservation Corps — all of whom lost their lives either in firefighting or from illness related to their duties — to be honored as part of a memorial to be unveiled in Sacramento on April 6.


Their names — Gomez, Mack Henson, an El Centro firefighter who died in 1931, Juan Candelario Lopez, a Calexico firefighter who died in 1994, and David Ray, the El Centro man who died in 1997 while battling a fire as a member of the California Conservation Corps — will be listed on the California Firefighters' Memorial.

Established by the state and funded through donations, the memorial pays tribute to the more than 850 firefighters in California who gave their lives to protect others, dating back to when California became a state in 1850. The memorial is in Capitol Park adjoining the state Capitol.

For Sonia Gomez it's an honor to know her father will be included on the memorial wall.

"I feel very fortunate to know my father was a real hero," she said, trying to hold back tears.

"Just thinking about it overwhelms me. There are no words. It's been sad to know my father has not been in my life, but then the way he died was unselfish," she said.

David Gomez died Nov. 18, 1976, a day after he responded to an emergency call in which two men working inside a 10,000 gallon underground fuel tank had been overcome by fumes as fuel leaked into the tank.

Firefighter Alvin "Lefty" Martin was the first into the tank and he managed to get one victim out, but not without a struggle. The hole leading into the tank was only large enough for one person to fit through and it was difficult to lift the victim out of the tank.

Gomez was the second firefighter into the tank. Like Martin, he succeeded in getting out a victim, but Gomez succumbed to the fumes and became trapped in the tank. He inhaled a lethal level of fumes and died a day later.

One of the two men pulled from the tank was William Stumbaugh, who was 32. Stumbaugh survived. The other man pulled from the tank, Kenneth McDowell, did not.

Gomez became only the second El Centro firefighter to die in the line of duty. The first was Henson, who died from injuries he suffered from fighting a truck fire in 1931.

According to an Imperial Valley Press article from that period, Henson was responding to a truck fire that had been accidentally set by welders in a truck repair yard.

When Henson knelt down with a fire extinguisher to spray the flames beneath the truck, the gasoline tank exploded, showering him with burning gas. He died a week later.

Henson and Gomez are the only two local firefighters killed in the Imperial Valley while performing their duties.

Lopez died from lung cancer after a more than 30-year career with the Calexico Fire Department. His cancer was determined to be a direct result of the work firefighters do. He died six months after he retired as a captain with the department.

Calexico fire Capt. Pete Mercado said the memorial is a small recognition of the cost Lopez paid — a cost that led to safety improvements for firefighters.

When Ray died, he was not a professional firefighter, but he gave his life battling a blaze just the same.

At age 21, he died after falling into a coma brought on by heatstroke suffered while fighting a fire in Lakeside as a member of the CCC.

His mother, Marcia Ray, said she was unaware her son was to be honored but said, "These memorials are an honor and a comfort to us as parents."

She added her son's name was added to a national memorial in Maryland in 1998.

Marcia Ray said of her son's death, "It's just an unreal feeling and yet his death was doing something so honorable. We are real proud of him and what he did."

El Centro fire Battalion Chief Bill DuBois said it is a "tremendous honor" to have local firefighters' names on the memorial, but he added it is a small consolation for the families of the firefighters.

"We hope we never have another one," DuBois said.

Sonia Gomez said her father would be proud to have his name included among so many who gave everything they had to save lives.

"For someone to give their life up for another, that is just so unselfish," she said of her father, who had a park in the city dedicated in his name in the mid-1990s.

She added of her father that while he only lived 25 years, he did a lot in that time. He was raising a family, had a home and was doing everything he could to care for his family.

"In 25 years I know he lived life to its fullest," she said, adding, "People still tell me what a hard worker he was."

Gomez has made it her task to teach her 12-year-old son about the grandfather he never knew.

The El Centro Firefighters Association will be covering the cost for Sonia, her son, her mother and her brother to make the trip to Sacramento, including airfare and hotel costs.

El Centro fire officials said they are searching for any family members of Henson to talk to them about the memorial. They asked that any family members or anyone with information about the family to contact the Fire Department at 337-4530.

Sonia said she is looking forward to seeing her father's name memorialized. She said on that day as every day, she will think of her father as a hero.

"He deserves this honor," she said.

>> Staff Writer Darren Simon can be reached at 337-4082.

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