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The faithful fireman

The 39-year Lutz volunteer firefighter has witnessed horrific blazes, dramatic rescues, growth in the community and a decline in volunteerism. The department recently said "Thanks."

Chemical explosions. A milk-jug arson. A collapsing wall. A naked, missing boy. Water fights.

In 39 years, Jerry Goins has seen it all through the Lutz Volunteer Fire Department. He joined the department in 1961, when Lutz was so small-town that the fire-truck bays had no doors. The trucks sat with the keys in the ignition so the first firefighters answering a call could drive them out.

Goins has watched as the department moved into larger quarters and outgrew those. He has watched Lutz become bigger and less personal. He has watched his volunteer firefighters become paid professionals and be replaced by college-educated, semi-pros intending to do the same.

Yet Goins, 59, didn't notice a recent conspiracy to honor him.

As the camera-shy Goins worked one night on renovations to the department's old firehouse, a man came through with a videocamera. He was Joe Bamford Jr. of Channel 8, son of the department's administrative chief. Bamford videotaped Goins and several of the firefighters converting the old building into a meeting house.

At the department's annual banquet in October, Goins noticed a television and joked about watching cartoons. The truth came out after dinner. The tape showed Goins working at the firehouse.

"When the last bit of drywall is up and the final coat of paint is brushed," said the voice of Channel 8's Bob Hite, "we dedicate this building to Jerry Goins and say, "Thanks. Thank you, Jerry, for all you have done to help make the citizens of Lutz so very proud of their volunteers.' "

Goins cringed. "I kind of felt like, "I'm going to get in the corner and hide,' " he said.

Sneak attacks

When Goins first became a firefighter, Lutz was country. His fire truck once tore through a flock of chickens crossing Lutz-Lake Fern Road and reached the fire with one of them wedged, squawking, in the front grill.

All of the outer reaches of Hillsborough County relied on volunteer fire departments, and they were important not only for safety but for a social life. Volunteer departments held public competitions and launched sneak attacks to blast each others' stations with water.

The Lutz fire station had a pinball machine and a pool table, said William Hoedt, a longtime board member of the Fire Association.

"It was always geared to give the guys something to do at the station, to get them to stay there," Hoedt said.

"If you could pick up the hose and move it, we didn't care what your age was," Goins said.

Leslie "Pete" Dennison, a former chief who volunteered for 27 years, marvels at Goins' enthusiasm. Both men remember the day that Goins sped up to the station for a call and the brakes failed in his old Studebaker. The car smashed into a light pole. But Goins left it there. He rode away on the fire truck.

Thanks to fundraising in the mid-1970s, Lutz became one of the first departments outside Tampa to acquire a set of the Jaws of Life, and Goins and Dennison became proficient on the pincerlike device, Dennison said. They raced around the county to rescue trapped motorists, and Goins often would drop from the truck before it had completely stopped.

Once, at U.S. 41 and Hanna Road, he stepped into a hole, Dennison said.

"He just rolled a flip and turned right straight up on his feet," Dennison said. "It was just like this was the way you got off a rescue truck."

On another call, Goins arrived at a fire at Steinke's service station, a local hangout. Norman Steinke was trapped inside, in his wheelchair. Goins promptly kicked down the front door, awing sheriff's deputies. He knew the door was rotten.

"If the termites had stopped holding hands, it would have fallen anyway," he said.

Blast after blast

Goins has witnessed some of the most catastrophic fires in local history.

In 1978, fire destroyed a Purex Corp. bleach plant near Temple Terrace, burning for nearly 20 hours. Several chemical explosions occurred inside the plant, but 75 firefighters kept the fire from igniting another 100,000 gallons of propane and chlorine.

Goins, who arrived with no gear, helped set up a first-aid area.

In Northdale in 1985, fire raced through an apartment complex, still under construction. It sucked oxygen so ravenously that it created in-bound wind from every direction.

In 1986, Goins was called to a fire at the A.L. Hendry & Co. paint factory on N Nebraska Avenue. He approached as 55-gallon drums of paint thinner created blast after blast.

"I said, "We may be the only ones standing when we get there.' "

In one explosion, the 200-pound lid of a steel vat blew 300 feet into the air, bounced off a ladder truck and smashed a fire engine. Goins joined a search for the driver of the fire engine. It turned out he had seen the blast and had dived under the truck in time.

Goins' closest call was at a mere house fire in Crenshaw Lakes. A wall of the house began to fall en masse toward him. He dived to safety, sending his fire helmet flying. The wall flattened the helmet.

Some daunting calls have turned out simple.

Once, hundreds of rescuers searched for a 10-year-old boy whose clothes were found trailing into the woods off Newberger Road. He was found naked under the family's shed. In a tantrum, he had removed his clothes because his foster parents had bought them.

Another call was for a bar explosion on N Dale Mabry Highway. It looked like an inferno, yet the fire department was able to extinguish the flames in only minutes. Inside, firefighters found plastic milk jugs along the walls that an arsonist had half-filled with gasoline. The roof was displaced by a few inches.

Goins' explanation: The gasoline had lifted the roof when it ignited, but then just burned against concrete-block walls.

"It made so much fire that it attracted attention before anything really got hot," he said.

"Basically tireless'

Today, Goins bemoans the way society has changed. Lutz no longer is a place where most businesses are locally owned and employees can leave spontaneously to fight fires.

Residents' financial support is at an all-time high, "but we're having a harder and harder time recruiting people to volunteer," he said.

The department now relies heavily on volunteers from outside Lutz who train there for paying firefighting careers.

Retired from GTE, Goins has been president of the Lutz Volunteer Fire Association for 9{ years. He still enjoys firefighting but adds, "What has kept me in the department so long is the thought of one of my relatives needing help and nobody being here."

The tribute to Goins occurred one night to Joe Bamford as he lay in bed thinking about Goins and the firehouse renovations.

"Jerry was there when that building was constructed, and he was there when they put the addition on there," said Bamford, father of the man who videotaped Goins. "Now he's done 90 percent of the labor. He's done all the framing in there. He installed the windows, put in the doors.

"He just basically is tireless," Bamford said. "A simple, "Thank you, Jerry' for doing all this work just wasn't going to be enough."

_ Bill Coats can be reached at (813) 226-3469 or coatssptimes.com.

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