A death in Potrero
Union Tribune (2007-10-23) Tony Manolatos
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During rescue effort that turned tragic, an act of heroism
By Tony Manolatos
UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
October 23, 2007
Hours after the Harris fire started on a rural road near the U.S.-Mexico
border, one man was dead and his son and four firefighters were rushed to a
hospital with severe injuries.
It appears the firefighters - three men and a woman - were trying to save
Thomas Varshock and his son, Richard, 15.
"We have not interviewed them (the firefighters), but that's what it looks
like," said Capt. Matt Streck of Cal Fire.
On a day when multiple fires took hold of San Diego County, there was
Several firefighters, including Streck, tried to get to the four
firefighters - a captain and three others who haven't been identified - but
the flames kept everyone at bay except for a rescue helicopter.
Varshock died and his son remains hospitalized. Fire officials said the two
were trying to save their home in Potrero.
Three of the firefighters remained in critical condition last night at UCSD
Medical Center in Hillcrest. One was in fair condition.
Streck did not know the station where the four firefighters are based. They
drove an engine to the area shortly after the fire started at 9:30 a.m.
Sunday on Harris Ranch Road in Potrero.
It was just after noon when a helicopter pilot, who has not been identified,
heard the firefighters calling for help on their radios.
The firefighters were south of state Route 94 and east of state Route 188,
which is where the fire jumped Route 94 and continued west.
Streck and other firefighters in the area heard the calls for help and tried
to rush to their colleagues. Streck was in a Cal Fire Ford F-350 pickup with
a news crew. He left the reporters behind on Route 188 between Tecate and
"I tried to drive to them," Streck said. "I tried, but I couldn't get
through the flames.
"A lot of people drove through a lot of flame fronts to try and get there.
It was a very dramatic experience."
Cal Fire Chief Ray Chaney, who was flying a plane, served as a guide for the
men and women below. Chaney could see the flames surrounding the
firefighters, so he calmly directed the ground units, urging them to wait
for the flames to clear.
One of the people Chaney was directing was Chief John Francois, who was
desperately trying to reach the firefighters. The flames never eased enough
for Chaney to give him the go-ahead.
"That was very frustrating to listen to on the ground," Streck said. "But he
was a great calming influence on everyone. It was a real emotional time for
everybody on the ground, and he was giving clear direction. We needed that."
Fortunately, Streck said, a U.S. Forest Service helicopter was in the area,
dropping water on the Harris fire. The pilot spotted the firefighters, found
a clearing and extracted them.
"It was a very heroic rescue," Streck said. "There was fire all around.
There were downed power lines. There were 80 mph wind gusts."
Streck isn't sure if the same copter rescued Richard Varshock.
The firefighters were airlifted to a Cal Fire station a half-mile away in
Potrero. Minutes later, they were in an air ambulance to UCSD Medical
Center. They arrived at 1:30 p.m.
Thomas Varshock, 52, grew up in San Diego County and attended Monte Vista
High School in Spring Valley. He helped coach his son's high school
wrestling team, said Margaret Varshock, Thomas' stepmother.
Gordon Hammers, chairman of the Potrero Community Planning Group and a close
friend of Thomas Varshock, said father and son "were defending their home
and trying to save it. The fire was moving so fast, they just got
"He was a sterling character," Hammers said of Varshock.
Jan Hedlun, a former business partner of Varshock's, described him as an
extremely intelligent geologist and expert in evaluating construction
defects. "He was an entirely generous person with a family spirit" who
donated his time to build a local library, she said.
Hammers said Richard Varshock has set goals of a military academy
appointment and admission to the special forces.
The teenager, the four firefighters and a fifth firefighter who was burned
elsewhere in the county are among 16 patients hospitalized at UCSD Medical
Center with injuries. The patients have burns covering between 3 percent and
60 percent of their bodies. Many had serious lung damage from inhaling smoke
Dr. Raul Coimbra, director of the hospital's trauma, burn and surgical
intensive care units, said staff members were particularly taken with the
firefighters who were hurt.
"We look at them as our partners," he said. "We're touched and saddened and
compelled to help them and try and save their lives."