The Orange County REGISTER
Johnson: "Tears flow as rescuer, rescued reunite
By BILL JOHNSON
"My name is Angela Basore, and I hope I have found the right person!
My mother died in a fire in 1970, and you (or someone named Harlan
Lambert) was the police officer who fought to save my 6-week-old
brother, my 3-year-old sister and myself. I have been looking for you for several years. I now live in San Diego, and would love to meet you if
you are the person I am looking for. I just want you to know what a
beautiful thing you did."
Harlan Lambert is seated at a front table of an Anaheim restaurant on
Friday morning as he re-reads the email. He chokes up. With him are
his wife, Sharron, and Curtis "Jake" Jakobson, a former fellow Santa
Ana Police Department officer and now best friend, who was with him on that awful early morning.
"I tend to cry a lot," Lambert finally says, almost sheepishly.
Once you know the story, you can see why any crying is perfectly understandable.
"The important thing, for me," he said, "was being able to save those kids' live's."
Jake Jakobson immediately picks up the telling of the story.
It was May 26, 1970, and they were the new kids on the department, he says, both of them working the graveyard shift. They were about to knock off that morning - the sun just barely beginning to rise.
"I'm going down Main Street when I hear this call of a house fire nearby," Jakobson, now 68, remembers. "I could see the smoke rising, and when I get there, I see Lamb(ert) jump out of his car and race to the back of the house.
"I'm telling you, it was like a blast furnace, that house. The front of it was totally engulfed. I run around back, and see Lamb bust out a window and start climbing in. I'm thinking, 'What is he doing?' I'm afraid for his safety. He tells me, 'Stay here. I'll see if somebody's in there.' There is so much heat and smoke, I could hardly breathe."
"He's crawling on the floor, down a hallway, and disappears. I'm calling after him, 'Lamb! Lamb!' Soon, he comes back with this little girl, and hands her off to me.
"And then he goes back in. He says, 'Someone else is inside there.' I'm telling you, it's like from a movie!
There are flames lapping out of the windows, parts of the ceiling are falling in, the tar from the roof has melted and is dripping on me. I'm thinking, I've got to go in to save him, but I know if I do, we'll both be dead.
"All of a sudden he comes back with another girl. He collapses. I grab him. He pulls away, and tries to go back inside."
"He pulled me out!" Lambert interjects, his eyes wide.
"By his police belt," Jakobson continues. "My jacket is melting and catching fire from the roof tar. I was not letting him go back in. What I witnessed that day was heroism at its height."
The two officers stumbled away from the house, and fell to their knees on the driveway. The Fire Department had arrived. Suddenly, a neighbor appeared.
"Where's the baby?" she shouted.
"Lamb is on his knees, gasping, when he jumps up like he's going back in," Jakobson continues. "I kind of push him back down, tell him the fire guys are here, that they've got all the equipment and the gear."
They watched as a firefighter kicked open the back door. Seconds later, a window crashed open, and the firefighter thrust a bassinet into Jakobson's arms.
"The baby looked like he's dead," he remembers. "He is so warm and covered with soot I kneel down with it, remember my CPR, take my two fingers and push on its chest while I clear his mouth. He starts crying."
Susan Clune, 30, had fallen asleep on the sofa with a cigarette in her hand inside the home in the 2200 block of South Evergreen Street, investigators later learned. Her daughters, Angela, 4, and Wendy, 3, were saved from the fire by Harlan Lambert. Firefighters rescued Douglas Jr., 6 weeks old.
Neither Lambert nor Jakobson ever learned from that day forward what had become of the three children.
"The next day was just another day on the job," Jakobson said.
It was Harlan Lambert's birthday the morning we sat in the restaurant. He is 77 now.
Long retired from the Police Department that made him the first black officer in Orange County, Lambert runs All States K-9 Detection and Dog Training, mostly training companion dogs. Not one day has passed, he said, that he did not think of the children and the fire. There were many days, he added, that he tried to force himself to drive onto South Evergreen Street. He just could not do it
"I just ran in," he tells me. "Only now, as an old man, do you think, 'What the hell was I thinking?'"
Angela Basore simply ran Harlan Lambert's name through Google to find him.
"It was on my bucket list for a long time," she said from her San Diego home.
"I was on one of those ancestry sites, messing around. I ran my mother's name. I wanted to know more about her, and that side of the family - you wouldn't think, after all this time, that you'd still want your Mommy - and a story in a Long Beach paper about the fire came up."
The years that followed it were very difficult for her and her siblings, she said. They were moved frequently from place to place with various relatives, and at one point were split up when it was deemed the job of
raising three children was too much.
She has lost contact with her sister, who lives somewhere in Texas, she said, though she does keep in contact with Doug, the baby in the bassinet, who she said is doing well and living.in San Antonio. "He was in an incubator for six months after the fire," Basore said of her brother. "He nearly died several times."
She does not speak of her father, who she said died several years ago, and was separated from her mother at the time of the fire.
She says she remembers the fire "pretty vividly. I've had nightmares about that day for many, many years.
I've never blamed my mom. It was a total accident. She was a single mom with three teeny, tiny children. I don't know ...'
Basore is 47 now, married and the mother of two girls, ages 19 and 14.
"You know, nobody ever asked me after it happened, 'Are you OK?' or if I ever needed to talk about what happened," Basore said. "So for a long time, I guess I just put it away. It was so traumatic, I had to. I became
the caretaker for so many years for my brother and sister. It taught me to love and live for my own children above anything else. I didn't want to leave them like my mother left me."
She and Harlan Lambert would later exchange a long chain of email, each of them eager to meet, together with Jakobson. They finally agreed to meet for a picnic at a park in Fullerton on Saturday morning.
Of the reunion, her goal was simple, Basore said.
"1want to ask them if what I remember is really what happened. I am really trying to connect with that part of my history. I want them to tell me the address of the house. I want to go by to see if it is still there.
"But mostly I want to tell them what a beautiful and brave thing they did. I want them to know I'm OK. I want to look them in the eye and tell them thank you."
Harlan Lambert says he could not stop crying after receiving the woman's first email on June 6. "1 was like a baby, I couldn't stop! It brought back everything that happened. That's what I'm trying to tell you! It's a personal thing. It got to me."
He will be completely stunned, he said, when he meets Angela Basore. The medals and citations he later received for his actions that day mean nothing, 'compared with saving those lives, he said.
"1 think that because this is coming to a head, it will really ease stress in my life," Harlan Lambert said. "To touch her, to see her, it will close a big chapter in my life. Forty-three years! Man, that's a long time ..."
Angela Basore, Harlan Lambert and Jake Jakobson met for the first time in 43 years Saturday morning at Hillcrest Park in Fullerton.
She got out of her car in the parking lot. Harlan Lambert rushed up, and they hugged for what seemed like forever. Lambert cried.
"Thank you for what you did," she whispered before burying her face in his chest. They just held each other.
"1 have a good life today, and I wouldn't have it if not for these two guys," Basore says, after turning to the gathering and pointing at Jake Jakobson. "It is an honor and a privilege to meet you."
Lambert, who cannot drop an arm that he has wrapped around Basore's shoulders, simply says, "1 cry," when someone asks how he feels.
"You made me a different person," he says, staring at Basore.
"I'm a lucky woman," she replies, continuing to stare up at him. "I'm still alive."
Contact the writer: 714-796-2265 or email@example.com
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