Neighbors rescue man in Chinese Camp house fire

By Craig Cassidy, The Union Democrat December 08, 2012 08:53 am

Firefighters work to clean up a structure fire in Chinese Camp Saturday morning. The residence was occupied by John M. O’Brien, 89, who was unharmed. Maggie Beck / Union Democrat, Copyright 2012.
A disabled former fire chief trapped in his burning trailer was rescued by a pair of neighbors Saturday morning in Chinese Camp.


The fire was reported about 7:11 a.m. on the 13000 block of Red Hills Road, according to Cal Fire Chief Darin McKinney.

It was fully involved when firefighters arrived, McKinney said. The trailer and structural additions were a complete loss. The cause remains under investigation.

Resident John M. O'Brien, 89, said the fire started with an extension cord laying across his bed. O'Brien said he attempted to put the fire out.

"I get around with a cane. I couldn't get enough water to throw on it to put it out," he said, visibly shaken with soot around his mouth and nostrils.

He was worried his dog and cat may have died.

Neighbors Jesse and Bill Penrose saw the fire burning from their home, about 50 yards away.

Bill Penrose said he dropped his coffee and, with his son, ran to help their neighbor of 16 years.

"When I saw it, a quarter of the house was on fire," Jesse Penrose said.

He said he and his father found O'Brien lying on the livingroom floor.

"He got out of the bedroom and fell down," Jesse Penrose explained.

They pulled him to safety then retrieved O'Brien's pickup truck from an adjacent carport.

"As I see it, my father's a hero," Jesse Penrose said proudly.

Bill Penrose said O'Brien is well known about town.

He owned the Chinese Camp General Store for about 20 years and was once chief of the Chinese Camp Volunteer Fire Department, largely orchestrating the department's formation in 1974.

O'Brien also served in WWII in the U.S. Marine Corps' famed Black Sheep squadron and made cameos in several Hollywood productions shot in Tuolumne County — like "The Apple Dumpling Gang" and "The Gambler" with Kenny Rogers.

He's been featured in articles in The Union Democrat and Los Angeles Times.

 Photographer Maggie Beck contributed to this report.