It’s about her dad, the late Bob Walker.
The year was 1973, and he was driving on Highway 111 near the Coachella Valley area when a camper in front of him overturned and caught fire. Despite having suffered a grievous injury 10 years earlier that left him without a left knee, he managed to climb up on the cab and pull out a woman from the vehicle.
But the fire spread quickly, and he could not reach a man trapped inside. As the article states, Bob Walker called for help but no one stopped. In the end, the man burned to death, and Walker was left to speculate that if more help had come, they might have had a chance to save the man.
Cruz was 8 years old at the time. She never forgot her father’s story about that tragic day. She never forgot how, when he returned home, his arms were cut and bleeding from the effort to save the couple.
In many ways what happened that day influenced the woman she would become.
“This is one of the reasons that pushed me in the direction to want to help people, rather than just stand around and not help,” said Cruz, who today is in her 25th year in serving as a volunteer firefighter for the Westmorland Fire Department.
Cruz, 47, a lieutenant within her department who resides in the county just outside Westmorland, pauses as she quietly wipes away the tears.
“Just talking about my dad brings me to tears,” Cruz said. “He was my hero.”
In many ways, Cruz is a community hero herself. Just ask her son, James Cruz — one of her three children — who at age 21 is a full-time firefighter for the Brawley Fire Department. That he chose a firefighting career has a lot to do with his mother.
“She is one of my biggest role models in my life — her and my dad,” James said. “I feel like I’m right behind her, following in her footsteps.”
You might say that Carrie Cruz was born to be a firefighter and that serving the Westmorland Fire Department, a completely volunteer department led by her brother-in-law, Fire Chief Sergio Cruz, is a responsibility both the Cruz and Walker families have accepted for generations.
Her grandfather, Byron Walker and her uncles, Bryon Jr. and Richard Walker, were volunteers in Westmorland, too.
Her grandfather on her mother’s side, Jay Pullis, was a full-time firefighter for the Brawley Fire Department.
For Carrie Cruz, who works full-time with the Imperial Irrigation District, another family tradition that dates back to another great-grandfather, Roy Andre, her eventual decision to join the Westmorland department came in 1986.
It was then that Chief Sergio Cruz put out the word that the department needed more volunteers. Carrie’s husband, Joel, was among those who signed up, as did two of her brothers, Byron Richard Walker and Roy Walker. A third brother, Bobby, had previously been a volunteer with the department.
Then, one night while she visited the Fire Department during a training session, Assistant Fire Chief Jackie Loper recruited her.
“At the time I worked in the Vons bakery, and I would bring them cakes to their meetings,” Carrie said. “One night they were doing training, and Jackie gave me a jacket and helmet and said they needed someone else.”
That’s when her service with the department began. It was service that would come to dominate much of her life, even as she became a mother. In fact, she tells a story of how her son, James Cruz, was born. If anyone was born to be a firefighter, it was him.
There was an emergency call one day and Carrie — who at that time was very pregnant with James — responded to the Westmorland firehouse to see what help she might be able to provide. As it turned out, it was a medical aid call and the victim actually was at the Fire Department.
It was during the course of helping to care for the victim that Carrie went into labor.
“Doing what I did to help kind of pushed me into labor,” Carrie said, laughing as she told the story.
James and indeed all three of Carrie’s children, including her daughters, Cory Jay, 18, and Jaycie, 15, would grow up around the Fire Department and their mother’s work as a volunteer firefighter.
“I always remember being there for her Monday night meetings,” her son, James, reflected.
Carrie, who would go on to become a certified emergency medical technician and certified cardiopulmonary resuscitation instructor, remembers how she would take her young son with her when she taught classes. In fact, one evening Sergio was laying on the living room floor, relaxing with their 18-month old son playing nearby. He crawled over to his dad, got up on his chest, and started doing the chest compressions and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation he had watched Carrie teach to a class the previous evening.
She speaks with pride as she talks of how her son made his decision to become a firefighter. For most of his life he had talked of becoming a California Fish and Game warden, but it was after a trip to New York in 2009 — during which he stayed with a firefighter attached to one of the firehouses that suffered severe losses on September 11th — that he decided to commit himself to becoming a firefighter.
Carrie also speaks of pride about a Fire Department that means so much to its small community — one where an emergency siren that sounds out citywide is a signal the volunteer department is needed.
It means a great deal to her that any revenue the Fire Department generates does not go into paychecks since they are all volunteers, but rather goes back into the community for the Fire Department’s Christmas giveaway to schools and the needy, and to the department’s Explorer program that is helping young people discover a career in firefighting.
Then, there are the stories she can tell — some with happy endings, some not so happy — during her 25 year with the department.
She remembers with anger responding to a fatal traffic accident where a family’s small car plowed into a truck, killing everyone in the small car, including a baby who had been removed from the car seat and kept in the mother’s lap to make room for luggage in the back seat.
The car seat had remained in place through the accident, leaving Carrie to speculate the infant could have survived if kept in the car seat.
“It was a senseless death,” she said. “I had nightmares from that call for a long time.”
Nightmares, she said, are a part of the job. Responding to any call involving a child where the outcome is tragic leaves her with memories she would rather not hold onto but are impossible to forget.
But then there are the good days.
She can remember a number of times where she has had the opportunity to help deliver babies, and those are memories she happily holds onto.
Then there was a time — only once — where she feared for herself. It was while responding to an apartment fire and she was the lead into the apartment with the fire hose. She recalled that the apartment was filled with black smoke, making it impossible to see, but they knew the fire was in a back bedroom and they had to cut through that smoke, get to the bedroom door, open it and do battle with the blaze.
She didn’t know what would happen when she opened that bedroom door.
What scared her was thinking about her three children and the thought of not being there for them should something happen to her.
“That was the only time I was scared for myself,” she said, adding in the end, she and her fellow firefighters doused the flames and no on was hurt. “I was so proud of my fellow firefighters that day,” she added.
Chief Sergio Cruz said when it comes to fighting fires and especially responding to medical aid calls, having Carrie there is a major benefit.
“She is a go-getter,” Sergio said.
Carrie said she plans to continue to be there to serve the Westmorland community for some time to come.
“You have a chief who has been here 35 years, an assistant chief who has been here 35 years, I’ve been here 25 years — and we just keep sticking around and we do it because if it were your mom and dad, someone needs to be there to respond. I would hate for that siren to ring and there be nobody to show up.”