Marin's Fallen Firefighters

Aubrey E. "Jack" Miller


San Rafael Fire Department

Building Collapse During Structure Fire


San Rafael Firemen Miller and Bottini died while fighting a structure fire on 4th St. in 1950.

Independent Journal
Monday, May 22, 1950
Pages 1 & 2

Two Firemen Killed As $75,000 Fire Levels Garage Building In San Rafael

Roof Collapses On Victims As Thousands Watch

A spectacular downtown San Rafael fire yesterday claimed the lives of two firemen who were trapped behind a searing wall of flame when the roof of Mar Vista Motors, a single story frame building, collapsed. Property damage was placed at $75,000.

Dead were:
Aubrey E. (Jack) Miller, 34, a World War II veteran and father of four children, member of the department since 1946.

William (Sonny) Bottini, Jr., 24, who joined the force in October and was a Marine Corps war veteran.

Two men working hear the paint room in a salesroom-garage before the fire broke out were cleared by District Attorney Albert E. Bagshaw today of criminal responsibility in the fire. They were not held following questioning yesterday.

They were Augustus (Red) Johnson, 23, Marin City, auto painter who has been employed by the firm two years, and James Thornton, 19, Woodacre. They admitted, in signed statements to Police Chief Frank Kelly and Charles I. Daniels, inspector in the fire department’s investigation bureau of smoking near supplies of paint thinner prior to the fire.

Bagshaw in a statement today said the catastrophe points to the need for a local ordinance to prevent fire hazards.

San Rafael city officials have been trying to draft an enforceable ordinance for about a year.

Dragged From Building
The two victims were dragged from the raging inferno by fellow members of the department. Bottini, who was still alive and attempting to escape from the structure, was pulled to safety by a young volunteer fireman, Robert Franzel.

He was taken to San Rafael General Hospital where he died at 1:45 a.m. today.

Miller was trapped by a falling beam as the roof fell in and apparently died instantly. Autopsy reports said death resulted from first and second degree burns over the head and body.

Their deaths are the first ones in line of duty in the 75-year history of the San Rafael fire department.

The flames completely destroyed the Mar Vista Motors, used car salesroom and paint shop, at 812 Fourth street.

Firemen stopped the flames before they spread to an adjoining two-story frame building housing a 10-room boarding house, Club Moderne, and Zirke’s Delicatessen. The adjacent structure was heavily damaged by water.

Flames Billow High
The alarm was sounded at 11:53 a.m., as members of marching units were assembling nearby to begin the St. Raphael’s Mission parade and additional thousands were pouring into the downtown district to witness the festivities.

Flames were shooting high into the air and black smoke billowing over the entire downtown district of the city by the time firemen arrived at the scene.

They quickly set up hose lines and ladders and fought the flames from the front and rear of the L-shaped building.

Miller and Bottini were manning the hose line inside the front of the structure. Franzel, a young volunteer, was about five feet behind them, when the roof began to collapse without warning.

Falls Like Trap Door
Franzel ran clear of the roofing, which fell like a trap door. A beam hit and pinned Miller down.

Firemen John Canziani and George Canessa went into the building to pull out Miller’s body. Franzel went back into the building to pull out Bottini.

Bottini, suffering a compound leg fracture in addition to third degree burns, was rushed to San Rafael General Hospital where blood plasma from Hamilton Field was administered. Miller’s father-in-law, Second Assistant Chief Matt Hart, half way in the building at the time of the fire, escaped injury.

Four San Rafael fire trucks and seven Marin county fire trucks responded to the call. San Anselmo fire department stood by during the fire at the San Rafael firehouse. Several times during the night smoldering embers at the scene of the fire flared up. A fire crew stood all-night watch.

Firemen’s Story
Fireman George Canessa’s story was this:
“I just finished setting up the lines when the roof crashed in. I spotted Jack (Miller) in there. John Canziani and I and a third fellow, I don’t know who he was, went in and dragged him out. His helmet had been knocked off his head.”

Franzel, a recent graduate of San Rafael high school, who was about 10 feet from the crash, said:
“I didn’t know what happened, it all happened so quick. Then I saw Bottini and wanted to help him out.”

Captain Arthur Coutts, Richard Colombo, a volunteer, and George Simonds were on a ladder climbing a fire wall when the roof crashed in.

Ready Car For Paint
Johnson and Thornton had been working on Johnson’s car since about 10 a.m. yesterday, they said, sanding it down preparatory to painting it.

Johnson told Chief Kelly and Daniels he and Thornton had been smoking up to the time of the fire but not at the time of the fire.

The fire started in a quart can of paint thinner atop a paint bench, Thornton said.

“I smelled or saw smoke in the one quart can,” Thornton declared. He went to the paint booth to grab a blanket to smother the flames. In the rush of excitement, Thornton said, he may have tipped the small can of thinner into an open five-gallon can of thinner on the floor below.

The five-gallon can and the floor around it started to burn,” Thornton went on, “and Johnson went to get the extinguisher.”

Thornton On Fire
“Harry (Thornton) hollored he was on fire, so I squirted the extinguished (sic ) on him,” Johnson’s statement explained.

“I was going to pick up the five-gallon can but it stuck,” Thornton said, “and tipped over. Then the fire really started.”

Johnson said he told Thornton to call the fire department while he went back and drove out a Cadillac.

Severed PGE power lines near the fire caused a San Rafael power shortage for several hours.

Owners of the Mar Vista Motors are Craig Baugess, 211 Forty-second avenue, San Francisco, and Ed Searing, San Francisco, who acted as manager for the firm. According to Daniels the building was insured.

Though Miller and Bottini deaths were the first in the line of duty in the long history of the San Rafael fire department they were not the first in the county. San Anselmo fire department lost Captain Bert Meagor who was trapped in a brush fire in 1935.

Funeral services for Miller will be held 9 a.m. tomorrow from the Harry Williams mortuary, San Rafael.

Funeral services for Bottini will be held 9 a.m. Wednesday from Keaton’s mortuary, San Rafael.

High mass will be offered for both. Rosary services will be held the evening preceding the respective funerals. Both men will be buried in Mt. Olivet cemetery.

Leaves Four Children
Miller, the son of San Quentin correctional officer Fred Miller, leaves his wife, Bernadette, and four children. They are John A., 11; Joanne M., 7; Dennis E., 6; and Barbara Kay, 2.

In addition to his mother and father, Miller leaves two brothers and three sisters. They are Roy and Joe Miller, San Anselmo; Mrs. Allen J. Marshal, Larkspur, Mrs. H. E. McKinney, Kentfield, and Mrs. Robert Hambly, San Rafael. Miller resided at 526 C street, San Rafael.

Bottini, a former part-time bartender in his late father’s tavern, was a member of a longtime San Rafael family. He joined the fire department shortly after service in the Marines. He resided at 1211 Second street. He is survived by his mother, Mrs. Carrie Bottini, and a sister, Mrs. Marie Brandt, San Rafael.

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Independent Journal
Monday, May 22, 1950
Page 2

MILLER – In San Rafael, May 21, 1950, Aubrey I. Miller, beloved husband of Bernadette J. Miller, loving father of John A., Dennis E., Joanne M., and Barbara Kay Miller, loving son of Fred and Essie Miller, loving brother of Mrs. A. Marshal, Mrs. H. E. McKenney, Mrs. R. Hambly, Joel and Roy Miller, a native of Tennessee, aged 34 years. A member of the San Rafael Fire Department.

Friends are invited to attend the funeral Tuesday, May 23, 1950, at 9 a.m. from the Harry M. Williams mortuary, Third and E street, San Rafael, thence to St. Raphael’s church, San Rafael, where a High Mass of Requiem will be celebrated for the repose of his soul, commencing at 9:30 o’clock a.m. The Rosary will be recited at 8 p.m. Monday at the mortuary. Interment Mt. Olivet cemetery, San Rafael.

Marin Professional Firefighters, IAFF Local 1775

P.O. BOX 15, FAIRFAX, CA 94978
(415) 459-4058 ·  FAX (415) 459-8009