By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Pierce was not at that point pushing the idea of racial harassment. Chief Cummings told the Weekly he couldn’t recall whether Pierce saw the prank as racially motivated, remembering it more as a case of hurt feelings: “It wasn’t something I dwelled on,” says Cummings. “It was around the holidays, and his shift was working Thanksgiving, and he couldn’t face the idea of bringing his family down to the fire station.” It was a personnel complaint that, Cummings says, “didn’t leave a lasting impression on me.”
According to media reports, when confronted by Coleman, Arevalo admitted that he put the dog food in Pierce’s spaghetti. Coleman determined that Captain Burton had known what Arevalo was planning, although the captain denies it. As word swept Station 5 that Pierce had turned in members of his crew, it never occurred to the firefighters that a lawsuit might be on the way, much less the costliest settlement offer ever made involving the Fire Department. On December 1, six weeks after the prank, Arevalo and the two captains were transferred as punishment for breaking anti-hazing rules. As the ranking captain, Burton was transferred far from his home, a punishment commonly known as “freeway therapy.”
Mike Telles, Pierce’s longtime friend, says of the crew, “They feel betrayed by him because he participated in all these things, and when it happened to him, he got upset about it. They didn’t do it maliciously. There was no hidden agenda.”
Says Phillips, who fought fires alongside Pierce for a year: “It was very disappointing. People have called me cracker and grand wizard. Are they being mean? No, it is a joke.” Pierce’s decision to take his complaint through official channels, he says, “didn’t seem like Pierce at all. It is a bunch of garbage. There is no merit to that. I figured that he probably talked to a lawyer.”
Long before the brouhaha at Station 5, Tennie Pierce had sunk deep roots in the department. Assigned to Station 61 along the Miracle Mile for 13 years, he grew close to Mike Telles. The two men were so close that Telles’ wife brought meals to Pierce’s wife, Brenda, when Brenda was diagnosed with cancer in 2000 — an illness she survived. And when Telles eventually wanted to transfer to a busier station — breaking the old bonds at Station 61 — Pierce stuck up for him when loyalty-bound firefighters said Telles was breaking up a close unit for personal needs.
The men were tight at racially mixed Station 61, and Pierce vacationed in Cabo San Lucas with his buddies and their wives in 1992. He became known departmentwide, working at several stations with hundreds of firefighters, and was just a few years shy of his 20th year on the job when he transferred to Station 5 in October of 2003, becoming senior firefighter on the “C” crew.
His 13-person crew, whose members ranged in age from early 20s to mid-50s, worked 10 24-hour days per month — a typical workload. With time on their hands when calls didn’t come in, the crew exercised, played sports, studied, cooked, completed chores and shared sleeping quarters.
On a professional level, Pierce was a competent firefighter. He played around with younger firefighters who were known as “boots,” and in typical Pierce fashion put his own twist on it, calling them “boot asses” and ordering them to perform menial tasks — when the brass weren’t looking. Phillips recalls, “He didn’t help out on a lot of stuff, but he is a fun guy to be around. Did he use his time to bully the younger firemen? Yeah . . . [He made] them do stuff around the station, because he has time on the job . . . I think it bothered some.”
Crews at stations 61 and 5, where Pierce spent most of his years, followed the internal code — sticking up for each other and never ratting out firefighters who broke what the rank and file saw as minor rules, like shirking small duties, bossing younger firefighters, or committing pranks and hazings.
Telles says Pierce adhered to the old Fire Department adage that “If you can’t catch, then don’t pitch.” In other words, if you can’t take a prank, don’t pull a prank.
Jokes or pranks about a firefighter’s ethnicity were common, and fair game as long as they weren’t considered racially motivated. Charles Palacios, a Latino firefighter, recalls that Pierce “would call me a beaner and I would call him a mayate. We all got along great. We had a bunch of great guys, and nobody got into any fight or mad.”
Palacios says the crew at Station 61 was “Mexicans, Japanese, blacks, whites — and nobody ever acted racially toward anybody . . . We had the type of crew that you could sit around and joke with everyone and nobody took offense to it . . . With [Tennie], he has never done or said anything racist. He might have joked about it.”
Gallows humor was rife — and probably impossible to stamp out regardless of political pressure from outside — among men and women whose own deaths were a real risk, and who had to deal with horribly burned victims and other tragedies.
Find everything you're looking for in your city
Find the best happy hour deals in your city
Get today's exclusive deals at savings of anywhere from 50-90%
Check out the hottest list of places and things to do around your city