Tested by fire: Golden Valley firefighter retires 33 years after near-fatal accident
The morning of Jan. 3, 1980, was the last time Susie Anderson let her husband go to work without a kiss goodbye.
Ed Anderson, who recently retired from the Golden Valley Fire Department and lives in Plymouth, was one of a handful of New Hope firefighters responding to an early-morning mutual aid call that day to fight a fire inside the Minneapolis Clinic of Psychiatry and Neurology in Golden Valley. Units from five suburbs were on the scene.
During the battle to bring the blaze under control, Anderson was ordered to go up on the building’s three-story high roof – and somehow fell off the edge of it.
“I don’t remember this, but I fell off the building, and I as was falling, I hit the side of the building with my head, cracking my helmet in half, which flipped me backwards, which snapped my neck, and I landed on my back on my airpack,” Anderson said. “I landed in front of two firefighters and Dr. Lilja from North Memorial Medical Center.”
One of those firefighters was Roger McCabe, an inspector for the city of Golden Valley who was with that city’s fire department for 27 years. Anderson knocked McCabe’s helmet off his head on his way down.
“I was on the ground, Ed was on the roof,” McCabe said. “He walked right off the building. I was standing here. Next thing I know, my helmet got torn off, and there was a firefighter laying there on the ground. My first thought was, ‘Where did he come from?’”
Anderson suffered a broken neck, a broken vertebrae, had a blood clot in his brain, a concussion, swelling on his left side and a broken thumb. McCabe and others immobilized Anderson’s broken neck until help came, which probably saved his life, Anderson said. The plate on the frame for his oxygen tanks kept his back from being broken, doctors later told him.
“I don’t remember anything (of falling),” he said. “Once I hit the ground, I don’t remember anything except someone telling me, ‘Take it easy.’ The rest is all blank.”
Word of the accident travelled fast.
“I was still in bed (when the phone rang),” Susie Anderson recalled. “It was about 7:30 in the morning, and our little one was still sleeping.”
The fire chief was on the other end of the phone.
“He told us to get to North Memorial as soon as we could,” Susie said. “He knew I had a young child at home, and he wanted to know if we could find a sitter. A fire truck came and picked us up. They didn’t tell me how bad it was.”
The truck dropped one-year-old Nicholas off at Susie’s parent’s house. When Susie got to North Memorial, the fire chief and the chaplain were at the front door.
“This isn’t good,” she remembered thinking.
“They told my wife, ‘He’s not going to make it, start making arrangements,’” Anderson said. “Two days later, I came out of a coma. Here I am today, a walking miracle.”
Anderson returned to his duties after six weeks in the hospital and five months of physical therapy. He rose through the ranks in both the New Hope and Golden Valley Fire Departments, had another son and is now the proud grandparent of four granddaughters. He and Susie have been married for 38 years.
The firefighting bug bit Anderson at an early age. He lived near a firehouse while growing up in Minneapolis and the sight of fire trucks racing off with lights and sirens on never got old for him. Anderson later joined a junior firefighter program at St. Joseph’s, a Catholic grade school in North Minneapolis.
“We’d do research, make posters and talk about fire safety messages,” he said. “You’d get so many points for doing that and you’d get a badge. We used to do inspections, like making sure lockers were cleaned up. That caught my eye.”
Anderson kept that junior firefighter badge, which he has on display in his home. Getting that badge sealed his decision to become a firefighter, he said. That desire was no secret to Susie, whom he met at Robbinsdale Senior High School in April 1970.
“He always wanted to be a firefighter,” she said. “He’s always wanted to be a public servant. He’s very driven, and he totally loved it.”
Anderson wanted to explore law enforcement and joined the New Hope police reserves in 1976. One of his coworkers told him that the city’s fire department was a lot busier and also paid for retirement. Anderson applied and was hired by the New Hope Fire Department in September 1978.
One year and three months later, Anderson faced months of physical therapy in the wake his rooftop accident. Susie Anderson recalled that he spent nearly six weeks in the hospital. Part of that time was spent in traction on a rotating device over a bed.
“If you ever wanted to talk to him, he would be laying straight down, looking at the floor,” she said. “You’d lay on the floor and look up at him. When it came time, he had to learn to walk again, and our son (Nicholas) hadn’t learned to walk yet. They learned to walk together on the fourth floor of North Memorial. I’ll never forget it – they would waddle down the halls together.”
Anderson, his wife said, always said he would go back to firefighting. And he did – but not without one slight change of routine.
“After the accident, we would always say ‘Goodbye,’ and give a kiss because you just don’t know,” Susie said. “Since we lived through this and it was very traumatic, we always say goodbye. You worry because you know that they love it but you want them to come home safely. You want no one hurt. You hope for the best.”
Anderson returned to the New Hope Fire Department in June 1980. He eventually become a fire motor operator and captain. The Golden Valley Fire Department honored him as its 1980 Firefighter of the Year in light of his mutual aid assistance at the fire where he was injured.
He moved over to that department in August 1988 when a full-time fire inspector position opened and became a deputy fire marshal three years later. Anderson also founded and supervised the Hennepin County Fire Investigation Team and has served as a part-time fire instructor since 1992.
Finally, he would also visit his boys’ – and now his granddaughters’ – schools to talk about fire safety.
Nicholas Anderson, now age 34, has come a long way since learning to walk with his father in the halls at North Memorial. He is a general manager at Salem Communications, is married and has two daughters, ages 7 and 10. The Brooklyn Park resident never caught the firefighting bug like his father did. While Chris still gets a kick out of lights and sirens, he says he is “A-OK with watching it from a distance.”
“I was pretty proud of (Dad) back (when I was a kid) and I am pretty proud of him now,” Nicholas said. “I’ve always admired his work ethic, his passion for the fire service, and his loyalty to doing the right thing.”
Chris Anderson, Ed’s 30-year-old son, recalled thinking as a child that his father was a brave man to run into a building while other people ran out. It was hard seeing his father leave family functions and Thanksgiving dinners for fire calls, but he said it was “the coolest thing” as a kid to put on fire gear at the station and jump in a truck.
“We were pretending to be Dad,” he said.
Chris, who lives in Shakopee with his wife and two girls ages 4 and 5, once videotaped each Golden Valley fire truck as part of an elementary school project and had his father come to class with firefighting gear. He got an A+ on that project. Chris has earned his firefighting certification, and is “waiting for the right opportunity to come along.”
Anderson’s first test after the accident came on a Saturday morning training day.
“It was a high-angle rope rescue, and that was the scheduled drill,” he said. “I got up on top of the roof of the building … and rapelled off the side. I had to get up and get on top of that building. If I didn’t do it then, I was never going to do it again. I wasn’t scared. I just had to get up and do it.”
He did it once. Then, he did it again. And for the next 33 years, he never stopped.
Two days before his Jan. 31 retirement, Anderson’s office at Golden Valley Station 1 was nearly empty. The only remaining picture on the wall was, of course, of a fire – a 1982 shot of the Donaldson’s Department store burning down in Minneapolis. His collection of various nozzles and sprinkler heads still needed to be boxed. While his tenure at the department may be over, his passion for firefighting is far from extinguished.
“It’s absolutely lived up to what I thought it would be,” Anderson said. “It’s been great … it’s been great.”