Many people know the obvious accomplishments of Willie Ray Davis; he was the first black professional firefighter in Texas and he was also the first black officer in the state. On the other hand, not many people know of the rescues and fire attack that he performed back in the day before airpacks, ICS, safety, and technical rescue training. The following are a couple of situations that Fireman Davis found himself in the middle of throughout his 30 year career. What’s missing are the countless other situations that have been lost to time and memory.
In 1955, the Stephen F. Austin hotel had a room on fire on the 12th floor. The fire was situated directly across from the elevator vestible. A group of firefighters went up the elevator to the 12th floor (remember this is 1955 with 1955 tactics and lack of protection) and as they entered the hallway and the elevator doors closed behind them it created a vacuum that sucked the fire above all their heads with the force of a flashover. All the men were immediatly knocked to the floor and scattered for their lives as the paint on the walls began to blister and melt. Luckily, the stairs were nearby and all the firefighters were able to seek safety. The fire obviously grew and still needed to be put out. This was a time when chiefs, including the Fire Chief, humped hose and fought for the nozzle. Willie Ray, along with Fire Chief Woody and another assistant chief, climbed the stairs from the ground floor and extinguished the fire. This fire took place only 3 years after the first African American firefighters were hired and were still trying to prove their worth. After Fire Chief Woody fought this tough fire beside Willie Ray, it had profound effects on the Chief’s respect for black firefighters. Unfortunantely, Chief Woody retired in 1958 after 30 years as Chief and the following Chiefs did not continue with the same respect.
Another fire occured in 1969 at the Booker T. Washington apartments in East Austin. Upon arrival at the complex heavy fire was showing from an upstairs apartment and bystanders reported a baby still inside. Without an airpack, Willie Ray entered the downstairs and met heavy smoke and zero visibility. Fortunately, Willie Ray had responded to this complex countless times throughout his career so he knew the floor plan of the apartment by heart. He took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and went in feeling his way to the second floor bedroom and pulled the lifeless child from a crib. When he got her out of the apartment she was not breathing and in cardiac arrest. He began reviving her and a pulse returned. Unfortunatly, she died several weeks later, but the heroic rescue was testament to his courage as a firefighter.
One last amazing Willie Ray story took place in the 1970’s when he was working out of Fire Station 15 as a Captain. An alarm for a silo rescue out near Callahan’s General store was turned in. Apparantly two workers were cleaning a silo with unknown chemicals and were overcome by the fumes. Willie Ray and his crew arrived on scene and proceeded to the roof of the silo to investigate. There they saw the two unconscious men below and decided to go get them. The first fireman went down a rope as Willie Ray and Sticks Farris worked together to lower him to the downed workers. Immediately, the fireman was overcome and fell unconscious too. That’s when Sticks told Willie Ray “I’m going in to get Buck and if I start yelling pull us out!” Willie Ray, now alone on the roof, proceeded to wrap the rope many times around his thigh to serve as a human anchor to support the weight of several men. As Sticks was lowered he began to succomb to the fumes too, but not before he was able to grab Fireman Buck and Willie Ray pulled the both of them out. Sticks Farris and Fireman Buck survived, although the workers did not. Willie Ray had a rope burn across his thigh for weeks following the incident.
Forgive me if the details aren’t entirely correct, but those are the stories I remember after hearing them from Willie Ray. His passing as the last of the first black firfighters is important, but what I have found more important is the passing of a legendary firefighter.
This film below was created by Captain Victor Tiemann of Engine Company 5 at Old Fire Station 5 at 1005 Lydia St. in East Austin. In 1952 the City of Austin hired the first paid African American firefighters in Texas. They were initially stationed at Old Fire Station 5. Captain Tiemann had the crew demonstrate for the camera various activities in the day in the life of an Austin fire company in 1953. At the time of the filming the Austin Fire Department had a two platoon shift schedule and Captain Tiemann was in charge of the A-Shift. The driver was William (Bill) Walsh, and the firefighters of the crew were Willie Ray Davis, Marvin Douglas, and James Ritchardson.