South Salt Lake Fire Dept. Unravels Nearly 70-Year-Old Mystery In Line Of Duty Death

May 3, 2020, 10:10 PM | Updated: May 4, 2020, 10:22 am

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — A fire captain who died in the line of duty in 1953 is no longer forgotten, thanks to some fellow firefighters who became a team of detectives, solving the nearly 70-year-old mystery of his death.

Being a firefighter is about a lot more than just hooking up hoses and spraying water. They’re also the ones who show up in ambulances, help out at car crashes, and wear a number of other hats many of us never even think of.

When the South Salt Lake Fire Department was faced with a nearly 70-year-old mystery they couldn’t solve, it turned them into something else: a team of detectives.

If there’s one common thread that runs through every one of their jobs, it’s being prepared for the future.

But for Capt. Lyndsie Hauck, it’s also about remembering the past.

Strolling through the rooms and hallways of the fire stations, nearly every space is filled with a photo — firefighters posing in group shots, firefighters working scenes, buildings engulfed in flames.

Hauck is the one who dug the pictures out of storage, making sure those who paved the way aren’t forgotten.

“I think that our history needs to be recognized,” she said. “We had them in boxes, but that’s no place for all these awesome pictures.”

Nearly every photo has a story behind it, and Hauck is eager to explain.

She points out a rope one man is using to secure a hose to his shoulder and explains how another fell through the roof and landed on a hand railing.

Some pictures date back to the earliest days of the South Salt Lake Fire Department — back when it was staffed with a bunch of older volunteers from around town.

“It was a different world that we lived in,” said Battalion Chief Eric Sloan.

Sloan said he’s always felt a kinship with those faces.

“When South Salt Lake was established back in 1943, it was during World War II, and the young guys were off fighting war,” he said. “So the funding members of the department were in their 40s and 50s.”

Sloan is the one who put up a plaque near the front door of the department, in remembrance of one of the firefighters who came before him.

“Probably about 15 years ago, watched some old videos of some retired firefighters, and they mentioned Chief Plant’s death,” he said.

Assistant Chief George Plant died in the line of duty in 1953.

“Nobody ever leaves the station thinking that they’re not coming back,” Hauck said. “Nobody ever plans that today’s the last day they’re going to be on duty.”

Plant was a bit of a mystery. All anyone knew was that he’d died of a heart attack while fighting a fire.

When Hauck took classes at the National Fire Academy in Maryland, Chief Plant’s name was the only thing on her mind as she visited the Fallen Firefighters Memorial.

“So I’m walking and looking through, and there was no Chief Plant,” she said.

The memorial is surrounded by bricks, listing the names of firefighters from across the country who’ve died in the line of duty.

Hauck went to ask someone why she couldn’t find Plant’s name.

“I walk into the office, and say, ‘Hey, I want to know all I can about Chief Plant,'” she said. “So she types on her computer, and nothing. There’s no record of him.”

As far as the memorial goes, it was like Plant never existed — which turned a fire captain into a detective.

In order to get his name recognized, Hauck needed proof. She needed hard evidence in the form of a death certificate, a newspaper article, a witness statement, and a clear link between his death and a fire.

She went to work in the department’s record room.

Covered in shelves and old filing cabinets, Hauck sifted through whatever she could find.

Amid the outdated uniforms, back near the old Christmas decorations, she found a clue: an old poster board with pictures, patches, and names.

“This was the signature that we saw that said ‘deceased,'” she said, pointing to where someone had written Plant’s name under a photo. “That was where we finally put a face to the name.”

Sloan’s wife found the death certificate at the library, showing the location where Plant died — 2704 State Street. A strip mall now, a grocery store in 1953.

Through their research, the department pieced together what happened.

“The pumper, the engine that pumps the water to the end of the hose was faulty,” Hauck said. “He was actually under the engine, holding pieces together. Had Chief Plant not done that — and the stress that he was under, enough to cause a heart attack — we could be talking about multiple line of duty deaths.”

He was laying on the ground, helping force water to the firefighters inside until his body gave out.

“I mean, let’s be honest. This guy — underneath an engine, holding things together — so that the guys can fight fire,” Hauck said. “That’s a hero.”

Hauck was desperate. She needed more proof.

She and her crew found the name of the cemetery where Plant was buried.

They wandered the grounds, looking up and down the rows for his name, hoping to find anything that could lead them to more evidence.

“I about gave up. I was like, ‘Come on Chief, where you at?'” Hauck said.

They found his grave — and they also found hope.

“There were fresh flowers, so I knew that there was family,” Hauck said.

Someone knew Plant. Someone was still around who remembered him.

Hauck knew the missing pieces were out there.

A plea on Facebook brought a response from a retired Salt Lake City firefighter who had the newspaper article they needed: two short paragraphs, confirming that Plant had died while working on a faulty pumper.

That same request on social media also brought a phone number.

“I was there. I was there that day, and I remember looking out the window and waving at him,” said Joyce Hicks. “And that was the last we saw of him.”

Hicks is Plant’s daughter and is one of several family members who could provide the final piece: the witness statement.

She even had a signed affidavit from her mom, recounting what happened that day.

Mr. Plant and I were in the kitchen of our residence… getting dinner,” Hicks read. “Suddenly, the fire siren sounded at the South Salt Lake Fire Station, about four blocks away. The siren always sounds exceptionally piercing and shrill.

Plant leapt up and ran out the door.

Calling over his shoulder, ‘I’ll be seeing you, we’ll go for a ride,'” Hicks read.

That was the last time his family saw him.

Hicks was able to explain what led her dad to his final act — spending his last moments holding pipes together.

“He was always busy, he was a handyman,” she said. “He could fix anything.”

Even decades later, Hicks can recall nearly every detail from that day.

“It was very stressful,” she said. “My mother and I, we just went in hysterics, because you know, (we) didn’t expect it. He was only 52.”

The family had come to think Plant was forgotten, only to find out an entire department was searching for him.

“Finally, they had recognized my dad,” Hicks said. “Someone had.”

Hauck and the rest of the department had everything they needed, and the people at the memorial accepted every piece, finally giving Plant the recognition he’d been missing.

A recognition nearly 70 years later — a recognition now etched in stone at the Fallen Firefighters’ Memorial in Maryland — a place where Plant will never be forgotten.

“He’s far more of a firefighter than I’ll ever be,” Hauck said. “Hero, man. I don’t know what else to say.”

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South Salt Lake Fire Dept. Unravels Nearly 70-Year-Old Mystery In Line Of Duty Death