Thursday, November 10, 2011

Is that Mary Chapel?

LOOKING FOR BEL AIR FIRE IMAGES to add to our online photo archive, I came across a photocopy of a remarkable newspaper article describing a painting. In the fuzzy photo is Mary Chapel in flames.

The clipping, headlined "Bel Air Flames Again in Massive 'Firescape,'" with the "kicker" headline, "Chief Relives Battle." It describes a massive, 16-foot painting providing an eyewitness remembrance of the firefight at the Mount.

The photocopy and this scan are poor quality, but there's no mistaking the contours of the chapel and the steps leading to the arched door. A silhouetted figure aims a thin stream of water into the raging flames. In the foreground a firefighter renders aid to one of his teammates stretched out on the pavement.

I've read numerous accounts of the disaster, but never one that mentions Mary Chapel fully engulfed. Apparently the fire did start burning through the big wooden front doors and may have melted some of the leading in the stained glass before it was stopped. But unlike Rossiter Hall and the fine arts building, the chapel was saved.

The archives photocopy identifies neither the newspaper nor the date, unfortunately. Publication was definitely some years after the 1961 fire, because it mentions that the painter, Charles W. Bahme, took two years to finish the work, and that he had retired in 1967. Perhaps it was 1971, on the 10th anniversary .

Bahme wasn't just any eyewitness. He was deputy chief of the LAFD and the field commander for the fire. He was at the Mount on November 6, 1961, as cinders ignited buildings on all sides of the College, as the wind was gusting close to 100 miles an hour, and as the water supply started to fail.

The huge painting is a composite of his recollections of the entire disaster, which blazed through Bel Air and Brentwood for three days and at one point had a 154-mile fireline. "I tried to condense into this [work] the whole scope of the fire," Bahme said, adding that doing it was a way to "get it out of my system." The battle to save the Mount is clearly front and center in his memories.

Maddeningly, the clipping is cut off in the middle of his description of saving a college building that had caught fire. Ack! Which one? And then what happened?

Another day, another set of archival mysteries. The article is an great find, but not as great as the questions it raises: Where's the rest of it? Where was it published? Most of all, what became of that 16-foot painting? Will we ever find out?

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