The call came in at 3:50 a.m. Aug. 24, 1974. The Herb Williams Lumber Co. near Camino del Rio was on fire. At 3:55 a.m., another call came in: The West Building, on East Second Avenue, was ablaze.
Both callers were wrong, the firefighters of the Durango Fire Department discovered. The callers were misinterpreting the smoke pluming from a fire on Main Avenue that would destroy six historic buildings in the middle of the 800 block and kill two young first responders who were trying to save others.
On Sunday, the 40th anniversary of the fire, firefighter Nick Parks III and Durango Police Department Cpl. Gale Emerson will be remembered by those who were there that day, and by those who were not.
“Both were natural police and firemen,” said Lt. Dale Smith of the DPD on the 20th anniversary of the fire. “Some of us have to work at it to be good. They had the instincts to be good.”
Emerson and Parks were both 24, and both of their wives were pregnant with their first children. Neither Nicki Nicole Parks nor Jerod Emerson would ever know their fathers.
Soon after responding to the fire, Parks and fellow firefighter Ben “Butch” Gomez were sent to the back of Taylor-Raymond Jewelers to evacuate residents of the apartments upstairs. Emerson, who had gone off shift at 3 a.m., but was still in uniform and at the station, came back to help. As the three approached the burning building, it exploded, crushing and killing Parks and Emerson. The blast blew Gomez under a car.
“I actually thought I had died and gone to hell,” he said 30 years later. “I lost two brothers. If we hadn’t lost those two men, I would have stayed with the fire department. It just wasn’t the same after that.”
Their deaths were shocking to all on scene.
“All we wanted to do was go home and grieve our loss,” said Patrick Kelley, who would go on to become a captain with the fire department. “But being in this business, we had to stay and finish the job we started.”
One thing did change about how they fought the fire – they weren’t sending anymore men in. Firefighters pumped water into the buildings for more than 12 hours.
Eyewitnesses to the blaze
Kathleen Parker was a young reporter on the scene.
“I remember, in particular, one firefighter,” she wrote in 2002 when the Durango Fire Department was decommissioned and the Durango Fire & Rescue Authority was formed, “who stayed at the top of a ladder truck for so long that when he finally came down, he collapsed from exhaustion.”
One challenge was the burning rubber boots in the basement of Thompson Saddle Shop. Another concern was that the ammunition at Gardenswartz Sporting Goods might start exploding.
Reporter Karen Keiser from Denver’s Channel 7 News flew over Durango as part of her fire coverage. She said the smoke was visible 30 miles away and could be smelled at 10,000 feet.
Officers at First National Bank of Durango, just across east Ninth Street from the fire, were concerned it might hop blocks as the fire of 1889 did. They called out all the employees to help save irreplaceable records, organizing them in teams in case an evacuation was necessary.
Just as they did during the Missionary Ridge Fire almost 30 years later, residents wanted to support their public servants. They showed up with trays of doughnuts, sandwiches, hamburgers and other sustenance for the weary men on the front lines.
The fire took more than 24 hours to completely extinguish. Nine businesses were destroyed, including Gardenswartz Sporting Goods, Thompson Saddle Shop, City Taxi, Taylor-Raymond Jewelers and Chez Louis, a French restaurant. Several others were seriously damaged, including the Kiva Theater, where screenings of “The Sting” were abruptly terminated.
A number of residents, including many seniors, were left homeless.
Saga of an arsonist
After the fire, the cause was originally attributed to a faulty electrical box.
That determination changed more than a year later in November 1975, when police arrested Gilbert F. Martinez, 25, in a different arson case. He then confessed to the Aug. 24 Main Avenue fire and several others. Martinez said he started the fire because he was angry about being evicted.
There was little evidence to support the confession, and there were questions about Martinez’s sanity.
The case was moved to Breckenridge in Summit County because of concerns about his receiving a fair trial here. His first two trials resulted in mistrials as jurors struggled with whether or not he was legally insane.
Before a third trial started, Martinez pleaded guilty to setting separate, minor fire in Durango, and not guilty by reason of insanity to two counts of murder, for Emerson and Parks’ deaths, and three counts of first-degree arson.
In 1994, after 18 years at the Colorado Mental Health Institute in Pueblo, Martinez was released. A judge placed 11 restrictions on his freedom, including that he was not allowed to return to Southwest Colorado or drink alcohol and must continue with therapy.
In 2005, he petitioned the court to have the restrictions lifted, and the judge agreed. The only conditions remaining are, that as a convicted felon, Martinez cannot own a gun or vote.
“I am so disappointed with the justice system,” Kelley said in 2005. “Years later, it gives this case to judges who have no history of the pain and suffering that was caused by Gilbert F. Martinez. To Judge W. Terry Ruckriegle of Breckenridge, I say, ‘Shame on you!’”
There have been reports of Martinez returning to Pueblo or moving to Phoenix, but the legal system no longer tracks his whereabouts.
Whatever becomes of Martinez, friends and family of Parks and Emerson will never forget the two young men who were lost serving their community.
Durango historian Robert McDaniel will analyze the impact of the Aug. 24, 1974, fire in an article for Sunday’s Opinion page.