“Anyone left in the building would have perished” said Fire Chief Fred Little speaking to the Vernon News reporter on the scene. “We had to take chances, something we only do when life is involved.”
The date was April 22, 1960. The fire began late on a Friday evening, around 11 p.m., when the flames were first spotted inside the Bagnall Building. Black smoke swept through the offices of Interior Appliances, located on 32nd Avenue in downtown Vernon, and then rose to the suites above.
The Vernon Fire Department arrived on the scene shortly after 11 p.m. and a dramatic night operation ensued with two women, Ada Hitchcock and Winnifred Neff, being rescued from the upstairs suites with an aerial ladder.
Both women were later admitted to Vernon Jubilee Hospital for smoke inhalation and, thankfully, the only other casualties were minor injuries to two fire fighters.
On the following Monday morning, the Vernon News newspaper featured a black & white photograph taken at the scene of the fire on the Friday night. Under the title “Rescue Two Elderly People, Appliance Store Gutted,” the photograph captures the look of relief and confusion on Neff’s face as she is lifted down while wrapped in a blanket.
From recent research, the names of most of the others in the photograph are also known, such as Fire Chief Fred Little (with glasses, holding Mrs. Neff) and firefighters Jack Vecqueray (also helping Mrs. Neff) and Bill Georgeson (behind Vecqueray). Also pictured are Irish Connelly (above the fire chief) and in RCMP uniform is Officer Ken Coburn.
The news article recounted a harrowing fire and timely rescue of the two women who were trapped upstairs by the smoke.
“The smoke was so thick, that anyone trying to get upstairs could just go so far and then they’d have to come back. Every available smoke mask was in use, he said. The boys were facing two problems, rescue and fire fighting. We knew the construction of the building, so knew how important it was to get the fire out," recounted Little.
The next part of the story takes place in October of the same year. Guy Bagnall, who was a longtime Vernon resident and the original owner of the Bagnall Building where the fire occurred, commissioned a painting to memorialize the lifesaving efforts of the Vernon Fire Department.
“The Night Rescue,” was painted by Australian artist Howard Totenhofer, who was working in the Okanagan at the time. Totenhofer used the photograph from the front page of the Vernon News as his inspiration for the painting. Totenhofer’s choice of pastel pink for Neff’s clothing and encircling blanket serves to highlight her stunned expression in the centre of the composition.
“The Night Rescue” painting was officially presented to Fire Chief Fred Little and the officers and men of the fire department on Oct. 14, 1960. The painting originally hung in Vernon Fire Department location and then was later moved to storage.
On Saturday, May 20, 2023, members of Fred Little’s extended family were reunited with “The Night Rescue” painting at the Vernon Fire Hall in a small private event.
The Little family received the painting from David Lind, current fire chief of the Vernon Fire Rescue Services, and then handed it over to Collections Registrar Carolyn Ben of the Museum & Archives of Vernon (MAV). The MAV has accepted “The Night Rescue” painting into their permanent collection and it will be on display as of May 24, 2023.
Jenna Kiesman is the programming and marketing co-ordinator for the Museum and Archives of Vernon.