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Historic painting of fire rescue heading from fire hall to Vernon museum

The Night Rescue by Howard Totenhofer captures the rescue of a woman from a fire in Vernon in 1960
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Alan (left) and Warren Little hold a painting of a woman being rescued from a burning building in 1960. Their father, Fred Little, was Chief of the Vernon Fire Department at the time and can be seen in the painting holding the woman. The painting will be transferred from the fire hall to the Museum and Archives of Vernon and will be displayed there beginning May 24, 2023. (Brendan Shykora - Morning Star)

More than 60 years ago, Vernon firefighters undertook a heroic effort to save two women from a burning building.

It was a scene that was immortalized in painting form, and now that painting is making its way to the Museum and Archives of Vernon for all to see.

The Night Rescue is a painting by Australian artist Howard Totenhofer. It depicts a dramatic rescue that took place around 11 p.m. April 22, 1960, in the Interior Appliances’ offices in the Bagnall Building on 32nd Avenue in Vernon. Heavy smoke billowed from the burning building on that night, and the two women had to be extracted swiftly from the windows of the building with a ladder truck. The painting is based on the photograph that appeared on the front page of The Vernon News newspaper April 25, 1960.

The 82-year-old woman in the photograph being rescued is Winnifred Neff. She’s being helped down by Fire Chief Fred Little and firefighter Jack Vecqueray. Also pictured are volunteer firefighter Irish Connelly (above the fire chief) and RCMP officer Ken Coburn.

The following is from The Vernon News story accompanying the photo:

“Fire Chief Fred Little said he believed anyone left in the building would have perished. 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. We had to take chances, something we only do when life is involved, the Fire Chief said.”

Guy Bagnall — the original owner of the building that was engulfed in flames — commissioned the painting, which was presented to Fire Chief Little and others at the fire department on Oct. 14, 1960. For several years, the painting was located at Vernon Fire Station 1. But in an effort to share the painting with the community at large, at the request of Chief Little’s extended family, the painting is now moving to the Vernon museum.

Members of the public and Fred Little’s family gathered at the downtown Vernon fire station Saturday, May 20, to talk about the painting, the events on that night in 1960 and what it means to be sharing the painting with the general public at the museum.

Chief Little’s sons, Alan and Warren Little, were present at the gathering and received the painting from David Lind, current Vernon Fire Chief. They then handed it over to staff at the Museum and Archives of Vernon who accepted the painting into the permanent collection.

“This painting and the story it tells is an important piece of our community’s history,” said Lind. “I’m so pleased to see this painting go to the Greater Vernon Museum and Archives, where it will be preserved and shared with the community at large.”

Warren Little said his father, Fred, was chief of the Vernon fire department for 30 years, from 1939 to 1969. He joined the fire department in 1932 and became chief at just 29 years of age. In 1969 he was named Vernon’s Good Citizen of the Year.

Warren said he’s pleased to see the transfer of the painting come to fruition, fulfilling a family wish.

Barbara Smith (maiden name Hall) is the granddaughter of Neff, the woman in the painting. She was at the gathering and was presented with a copy of the painting to take home.

“I’m lost for words,” Smith said. “It’s just very honourable to be here and see this beautiful painting of her. It just brings back so many memories of her living here in Vernon, and I myself grew up in Vernon too.”

Smith said she remembers the night her grandmother was rescued. She visited her in the hospital that same night.

“She was so distraught, very distraught, but she pulled through. She was a tough old gal.”

The painting will be on display at the museum beginning May 24.

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Brendan Shykora
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Brendan Shykora

About the Author: Brendan Shykora

I started at the Morning Star as a carrier at the age of 8. In 2019 graduated from the Master of Journalism program at Carleton University.
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