Mann Gulch
August 16, 2012 10:48 AM   Subscribe

August 5th marked the sixty-third anniversary of the Mann Gulch fire.
PDF heavy, significant use of title text. Mobile users, and folks who just want the links, check the comments.

There's a song about it, Cold Missouri Waters.
My name is Dodge, but then you knew that
It's written on the chart there at the foot end of the bed
They think I'm blind, I can't read it
I've read it, every word, and every word it says is death
So, Confession - is that the reason that you came
Get it off my chest before I check out of the game
Since you mention it, well there's thirteen things I'll name
Thirteen crosses high above the cold Missouri waters

August 'Forty-Nine, north Montana
The hottest day on record, the forest tinder dry
Lightning strikes in the mountains
I was crew chief at the jump base, I prepared the boys to fly
Pick the drop zone, C-47 comes in low
Feel the tap upon your leg that tells you go
See the circle of the fire down below
Fifteen of us dropped above the cold Missouri waters

Gauged the fire, I'd seen bigger
So I ordered them to sidehill and we'd fight it from below

We'd have our backs to the river
We'd have it licked by morning even if we took it slow
But the fire crowned, jumped the valley just ahead
There was no way down, headed for the ridge instead
Too big to fight it, we'd have to fight that slope instead
Flames one step behind above the cold Missouri waters

Sky had turned red, smoke was boiling
Two hundred yards to safety, death was fifty yards behind
I don't know why, I just thought it
I struck a match to waist high grass
, running out of time
Tried to tell them, Step into this fire I set
We can't make it, this is the only chance you'll get
But they cursed me, ran for the rocks above instead
I laid face down and prayed above the cold Missouri waters

And when I rose, like the phoenix
In that world reduced to ashes there were none but two survived
I stayed that night and one day after
Carried bodies to the river, wondering how I stayed alive
Thirteen stations of the cross to mark their fall
I've had my say, I'll confess to nothing more
I'll join them now, those that left me long before
Thirteen crosses high above the cold Missouri waters
Thirteen crosses high above the cold Missouri shore
The Thirteenth Fire, by Dave Turner, an account that provides some historical context.
The Development of Safety Training after Mann Gulch
Mann Gulch Staff Ride, including topographic maps and pre-reading articles.
Mann Gulch case study (pdf)
A recent Great Falls Tribune article on hiking to Mann Gulch, if you'd like to visit.

Previously: Smokejumpers, Mann Gulch.
posted by zamboni (15 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Cold Missouri Waters, as performed by Cry Cry Cry.
Wag Dodge’s FindAGrave entry.
Mann Gulch Virtual Field Trip
Fire Weather Case Study - Mann Gulch Fire, Montana, August 5, 1949
Historic footage of U.S. Forest Service smokejumpers.
The Forest History Society's collection of smokejumper photos.
2009 Obituary of Earl Cooley, pioneer smokejumper
Forestry Forum post and photos of the DC-3 that dropped the smokejumpers
A collection of contemporary photos that illustrate a smokejump.
Classroom simulation of the Mann Gulch fire
Questioning Mann Gulch, an article on the subsequent hearings and legal action related to Dodge's actions in Mann Gulch.
The Collapse of Sensemaking in Organizations: The Mann Gulch Disaster, by Karl E. Weick, published in Administrative Science Quarterly Volume 38 (pdf)
A photo from where Stanley Reba died, looking up toward where Sallee and Rumsey went through the rocks to safety.
A 2009 interview with Bob Sallee, one of the two other survivors. (audio)
A photo of a USFS team recovering bodies from Mann Gulch in 1949
Forest Service General Technical Report INT-299, Mann Gulch Fire: A Race That Couldn’t Be Won
The crumbling concrete crosses placed in 1950 have since been supplemented by granite columns, carried in on horseback. (PDF)
Collection of investigation reports, including the 1949 Board of Review.
A short documentary about the life of Silas Raymond Thompson Jr, who died age 21.
An article on the 2001 replacement of David Navon's cross with a Star of David
posted by zamboni at 10:49 AM on August 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Well worth reading is Young Men and Fire, Norman "A River Runs Through It" MacLean's account of Mann Gulch.
posted by Iridic at 11:01 AM on August 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

.. and the most famous work of all Young Men and Fire by Norman Maclean. He atomizes the event moment by moment to the point of magnificent obsession. The last third of the book is nearly unreadable though as he goes into the mathematics of the event. What I find interesting is go to the Google Maps of Mann Gulch, there is an ongoing wildfire happening. Oh wait, it's gone/over .. used to be wildfire visible, guess they updated the map.
posted by stbalbach at 11:01 AM on August 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

A third callout for Norman MacLean's Young Men and Fire. While stbalbach is correct about the final third being a bit of a slog, the final pages are haunting. Perhaps my judgement is skewed by a professor reading it aloud on the final day of a course (Chinese Philosophy, of all things) and breaking down into tears. I shouldn't hype it up too much though. Oh, whoops, I did.
posted by fresheee at 11:18 AM on August 16, 2012

Young Men and Fire is a hell of a book.
posted by chinston at 11:19 AM on August 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Amen to reading "Young Men and Fire". I read this after being trained for wildfire fighting. If I had read it first, I might have done something else that summer! (Not really, but . . . chilling.)

Here's James Keelaghan's "Cold Missouri Waters". he wrote it.
That song eats at my soul.
I once went to the Missouri River in Montana, trying to get a boat ride up to Mann Gulch. this was after being trained, reading the book and hearing the song. It haunted me. All of the boat rental places were closed. Everyone was gone, fighting a fire in Glacier NP.
posted by Seamus at 11:20 AM on August 16, 2012 [4 favorites]

The omission of Young Men and Fire was intentional, it being the subject of one of the previouslies. Sallee, one of the survivors, had misgivings about the book.
Sallee eventually resented Maclean's insistence that he and Rumsey couldn't exactly recall their actions that day. "I would never agree with Maclean [about his theory]," he said. "I never forgot that opening in the rocks. . . . I remember that crevice. . . . I don't know [exactly] where Wag started his fire, but I do know where the crevice was. . . . They [Maclean and Robinson] tried to tell us what we had had for breakfast that day. I just told him he was wrong." Sallee believes that if he had agreed with Maclean, the author would have pushed forward with his project and published his book. Instead, Maclean set the manuscript aside and it wasn't published until 1992, two years after his death.
Speaking of omissions, I left out a link from the collected links comment:

An Analysis of Dodge’s Escape Fire on the 1949 Mann Gulch Fire in Terms of a Survival Zone for Wildland Firefighters (PDF)
posted by zamboni at 11:31 AM on August 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Holy crap. I've known the Cry Cry Cry song since it came out in 1998, but somehow never read the backstory.

This is one hell of a post. Thank you.
posted by notsnot at 11:35 AM on August 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've never failed to chill up and shiver when hearing James Keelaghan's performance.

Powerful writing.
posted by mule98J at 12:05 PM on August 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's taking me forever to learn to sing this song because I just don't have James Keelaghan's voice. But also the story affects me so much that I can't sing it well, play the slightly tricky chord change rhythm, and not get emotional and lose my place. Great song.
posted by Space Coyote at 12:22 PM on August 16, 2012

I love it when you bring me these things, Mefi. Historical events + music complete me. Thank you.
posted by six-or-six-thirty at 1:02 PM on August 16, 2012

Love the Cry Cry Cry song and thought of it immediately when I saw the FPP.
posted by maryr at 2:52 PM on August 16, 2012

Great post. I've been fascinated by Mann Gulch ever since reading Young Men and Fire many years back. I thought the last third was a slog less for the writing than the incredibly effective (if primitive by modern standards) data visualization of how the fire caught up with them, even after near superhuman efforts to outrun it. I couldn't look at that simple graph without thinking of the terror, desperation and despair it embodied.
posted by sapere aude at 3:49 PM on August 16, 2012

I hope I'm not the only one who immediately assumed this was a Team Fortress 2 related post
posted by shakespearicles at 6:02 PM on August 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Sapere aude,

As someone who fights wildfires, and who has read the work of Normal MacLean and his son John, I suspect that technology will never improve upon the ability of that graph to convey the Smokejumpers' heartbreaking final attempt to reach safety. Like the song, it captures so much in so little space.
posted by Kibby at 8:52 PM on August 16, 2012

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