Last of firefighters to battle fatal '74 blaze retires

Capt. Greg Van Donge served on the Walla Walla Fire Department for more than 37 years.

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Walla Walla Fire Dept. Capt. Greg Van Donge. Van Donge retired this week after a 37-plus year career. He was the last Walla Walla firefighter still working to have help fight the PG fire on Jan. 1, 1974 in which two Walla Walla firefighters died.

WALLA WALLA - A Walla Walla firefighter who was the last serving link to one of the department's darkest days is retiring,

Capt. Greg Van Donge marked his final day with the city of Walla Walla Fire Department last week, capping a career that spanned more than 37 years. He is the last person to retire from the department who worked on the 1974 fire that killed firefighters Gabriel Tichi and Woodrow "Woody" Groom.

A Walla Walla native, Van Donge said he bounced between a number of jobs as a young man before setting his sights on being a firefighter. Although he was passed over on his first application, he tried again a year later and was accepted, joining the department on Sept. 26, 1973.

Slightly more than three months later, Van Donge found himself among the firefighters at a major blaze at a tavern on Main Street.

The fire had begun on New Year's Eve and burned on into New Year's Day. Van Donge said he was off-duty when it started, but was called in to help the crews already at the scene. He joined other firefighters at the old main fire station, then located next to city hall.

"We were going to go out and relieve the guys at the fire when the walls fell," he said.

The collapse buried Tichi and Groom. "Really, all firefighting stopped as we dug those guys out," Van Donge recalled.

Despite the tragedy, the work of quelling the blaze had to go on. With the mercury hovering at 14 degrees, "we were out there all day. We only came in for short breaks and to call our families to reassure them we weren't the fatalities."

Then that night the exhausted firefighters had to deal with yet another, unrelated, fatal fire that killed a resident, making it "the worst day I've ever spent in those 37 years," Van Donge said.

Fortunately, no similar tragedy has followed, making the years that followed 1974 "a lot brighter," Van Donge said.

He went on to become a certified paramedic in 1977 and worked in that position until the early 1990s when he became the department's fire prevention officer. In that position, he rose to the rank of captain.

What's next? How about a coast-to-coast bicycle ride?

"I'm preparing to go cross-country from Seaside (Ore.) to Bar Harbor, Maine," he said, riding the entire distance with a friend, Randy Rogers.

Van Donge is no stranger to bike riding. During his entire career, two-wheeled transit has been his preferred way to commute to and from work, rain or shine.

"When I came to work the first day, I came on a bike," he said. "And on my last day, I rode a bike home."

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