Two first responders dead. A gaping hole in the middle of an historic downtown block in Durango. A long and emotional saga for the survivors.
The memories of the 1974 fire still echo today, a group of the surviving firefighters said at a recent gathering. They, members of the Durango Police Department, and firefighter Nick Parks and police officer Gale Emerson, who died that day, will be honored at the annual Hundred Club Banquet on Thursday.
While Durango has had several major fires since its founding, including one in July 1889 that burned several blocks, the 1974 fire still resonates.
The fire started about 3:30 a.m. Aug. 24 and was eventually discovered to have been arson. Over more than 24 hours, it burned six historic buildings and nine businesses in the middle of the 800 block of Main Avenue where the Main Mall now stands.
“In those days, there were no cellphones, no flip phones, no portable radios, so dispatchers had to hand-dial all the firefighters that were off duty,” said Frank Shry, who was a fire engineer that day. “I had told them to take me off the list because I was going on vacation.”
But the phone rang.
“I woke up and heard him say, ‘What fire?’” said his wife, Mary Shry. “And then he was gone.”
Pat Kelley, also an engineer, remembers that call, too.
“I turned on to north Main, and it was still dark,” he said, “but I could see the glow. It was dead silent, and so eerie but for the rumble of the fire. I thought, ‘You’ve got to be kidding, that’s the fire I’m going to be fighting?’”
Emerson had gone off duty at 3 a.m., but he was still in his uniform and at the station, where both the police and firefighters were based, and pitched in. Parks was a relatively new firefighter but was well known among the crew because his father, Chief N.P. Parks II, had just retired as chief.
While waiting for the power to be turned off, Capt. Ben “Butch” Gomez, along with Parks and Emerson, went behind the fire on what is now Narrow Gauge Avenue to rescue three women thought to be trapped in three apartments above Taylor-Raymond Jewelers. (They were already safe.) As they approached the burning building, the back wall exploded, crushing and killing Emerson and Parks.
“I heard this pop and didn’t know anything after that,” said Gomez, who was thrown under a car by the blast. “I came to and thought I’d gone to hell.”
Gomez went back to fighting the fire, which soon included crews from Animas Fire District, Farmington and Cortez. Paramedics wanted to take him to the hospital, but he wanted to get back to fighting the fire.
“They offered me a big glass of orange juice,” he said. “It looked so good, but I was afraid they had put something in it to knock me out, and I needed to stay to work the fire.”
Emerson and Parks were both 24.
“Both their wives and I were all pregnant,” said Cindy Kelley. “We were all calling because we heard people had died, but we didn’t know who.”
Neither Nicki Nicole Parks nor Jerod Emerson would ever know their fathers.
“A couple of weeks after the (1974) fire, we had continued fighting the fire, investigating the cause and been through two funerals before I could let in what happened,” said Dale Smith, a retired police captain with the Durango Police Department. “My emotions just overwhelmed me, and I still have my days.”
Arsonist Gilbert F. Martinez was arrested a year later after starting a fire at the Central Hotel.
“I was fortunate to be the one who broke the case,” said Smith, who worked 37 years with the DPD and was a detective at the time. “Sgt. Noble left me a note that he had seen Martinez at the hotel during the fire, so we brought him in for questioning. He confessed to that fire and then started confessing to a bunch of smaller fires, dumpsters and such, and then I realized he might have started the 1974 fire. He started crying and confessed to that, too, when I asked.”
The trial was moved to Breckenridge, and after two hung juries, Martinez pleaded guilty to setting the Central Hotel fire and not guilty by reason of insanity to two counts of murder and three counts of first-degree arson. After 18 years at the Colorado Mental Health Institute in Pueblo, he was released with a number of restrictions that included not returning to Southwest Colorado. The restrictions were removed in 2005, and the criminal justice system no longer tracks his whereabouts.
The fire led to the formation of the Hundred Club. Members pay $100 annually in dues, building a fund allowing them to quickly give money to the families of injured or killed first responders for immediate expenses. Over the years, the fund has grown to a level that also allows the club to give scholarships to the children of first responders. The group is currently providing scholarships to 16 students.
Emerson and Parks will be remembered Thursday night, not just as first responders who died in community service but as individuals.
“They were both local kids who grew up here,” Smith said. “Gale and Nicky just had the natural knack to be a policeman and a firefighter. Durango lost two outstanding, superb long-term citizens.”
Ann Butler may be reached at [email protected]An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect name for Chief N.P. Parks II, the father of Nick Parks.