LVFD recalls 40 years of service

Published 12:00 am Saturday, May 22, 1999

LEONARD GRAY / L’Observateur / May 22, 1999

LAPLACE – There might have been a bit more silver in the hair, and the creases in the smiling faces were a little deeper, but for members of the LaPlace Volunteer Fire Department gathered for their 40th anniversary reunion, they were forever young.

The LaPlace VFD gathered at the Holiday Inn, LaPlace, on May 8, to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the company’s establishment. Fouroriginal members were on hand to help lead the celebration.

Guest speakers included Parish President Arnold Labat and Civil Defense Director Bertram Madere.

In the beginning back in 1959, a fire in the small LaPlace community was battled by garden hoses and bucket brigades, Frank Fagot, one of the original members, recalled.

His father, the late E.L. Fagot, was a relative newcomer to the community,having been here only 12 years. A former member of the Elmeer VFD inMetairie since the 1920s, he could foresee a time when the town would need an organized, coordinated effort to fight fires, to be ready as the community grew.

Fagot’s organizing efforts began in 1952 when F.J. Aycock’s house burnedto the ground. Resistance, though, was high. “It was a ‘no-way-Jose’attitude,” according to Madere. “It was a rough endeavor.”Two years later parishwide water lines were installed, but fire hydrants were far apart, as LaPlace in that time was really seven tiny villages – Milesville, LaPlace Park, 51, Old LaPlace, Godchaux Community, The Crevasse and the Quarters.

In 1958, another effort was launched by Fagot and Kaiser Aluminum employee Jim Simmons. The first meeting was held at Simmons’ home thatSeptember and more followed. The first organized public discussion washeld at John L. Ory School on Jan. 6, 1959 with 40 people in attendance.Called to order by Milton Bienvenue (an original member who also attended the reunion), officers were elected – Fagot was named the first fire chief, with Simmons as president, and Paul Womax as secretary/treasurer.

They had no equipment, no fire station, no emergency notification system.

At their first fire drill, held on Jan. 11, the hose donated by Kaiser didn’tfit the hydrant.

On Jan. 17, the fledgling fire company leased its first fire truck for $1 ayear and parked it at Airline Motors Restaurant, later the fire company’s headquarters, as it was the only place open 24 hours a day.

The company, nevertheless, grew. “It just snowballed from nothing,” Fagotsaid.

A membership list at the time of incorporation showed 91 members, including Warren “Smokey” Montz and Frank Fagot, both original members who attended the reunion. Airline Motors employee Paul Cassioppi (whoalso attended the reunion), manned the fire phone.

When an alarm came in (the number was 6000 – no 7-digit phone numbers then), Cassioppi would contact the chief’s wife, who would call two other people. Each person would call two more, until the alarm was spread. Thatsystem worked for eight years.

At the first house fire handled by the volunteers – a Montegut Plantation cane-worker house in September that year – the house burned to the ground except for the chimney.

Fagot commented: “At least we saved the chimney.” In the next moment,the chimney collapsed.

Fund-raisers, door-to-door affairs, were held on a regular basis, supplemented by a $2,000 donation from the St. John Police Jury. In 1962the first station was built on Hemlock Street, which also hosted fund- raiser teen dances for eight years.

In 1967 the LaPlace VFD became the first fire department in the River Parishes to acquire a two-way radio system. In 1970, Frank Fagotsucceeded his father as chief. That same year, mutual-aid agreementswere signed with all fire departments in the River Parishes.

And, in 1970, L’Observateur publisher Joseph Lucia Sr. proposed to Fagot afestival to raise funds for the department. After months of politicking inthe department, the Andouille Festival was born in July 1971, with the first festival held the following year at the LaPlace Dragstrip. It was co-chaired by Bienvenu and Montz.

Other landmarks quickly followed. In 1973 the first emergency rescueservice was launched. In 1974 the fire insurance rating improved from a10 to a 7 – the first River Parishes VFD to improve its rating.

In 1984, a quarter-cent sales tax was approved by voters to finance the parish’s four fire departments in LaPlace, West Side, Reserve and Garyville. That same year, John Snyder succeeded Fagot as fire chief.The fire insurance rating improved from a 7 to a 5 in 1988 and again from a 5 to a 3 (best possible for an all-volunteer department) in 1993.

In 1997, Robert Bourgeois became the fire chief, only the fourth in 38 years.

Over the department’s 40 years of existence, records show it has battled five gasoline bulk-plant fires, two fires at Shell/Norco, one at GATX Terminal, a warehouse fire in Kenner, the 1982 airplane crash in Kenner, four grain elevator fires and explosions and four ship fires.

The four remaining original members – Fagot (who started at age 18 and remains the only active member), Cassioppi, Montz and Bienvenu – were honored at the reunion gala with engraved gold watches.

And, after an evening of looking through scrapbooks, old newspaper clippings, lots of food and punch, glad-handshakes and camaraderie, a passing fire truck, siren wailing, brought a gleam to many an eye.

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