Sometime around 1 p.m. today, Kerri Francis McCluskey of Sonora and her parents likely will meet and chat for the first time with Modesto firefighter Jim Adams.
These folks easily could have gone through their entire lives without intersecting. But as so often happens, one family's misfortune leads to another's benefit, and that is what takes both the Francis family and Adams to the Sacramento Public Safety Center for a ceremony in which Kerri and Adams are expected to speak.
The Francis family endured the cruelest of losses Sept. 24, 1972 40 years ago come Monday and the reason for today's remembrance when an F-86 Sabre Korean War-era fighter plane tried to take off from Sacramento's Executive Airport but instead crashed into a Farrell's Ice Cream Parlour along Freeport Boulevard, at the runway's end. Twenty-three people, including Kerri's identical twin sister, Kristi, died. Kerri suffered a broken femur and cuts from shattered glass.
Adams suffered third-degree burns over 50 percent of his body when he and fellow Modesto firefighter J.D. Clevenger both fell through the garage roof of a burning central Modesto home on New Year's Day 2010. Adams got the worst of it. After being rescued by other firefighters, he asked his chief to pass on final words to his wife, because he didn't think he would survive.
But he did, and the aftermath of the 1972 plane crash at the Farrell's perhaps is the biggest reason why.
Sacramento firefighter Gene La Vine and eight family members also were in the ice cream parlor that day. They were among the 23 who perished amid the flames and debris. The incident compelled fellow Sacramento firefighter Cliff Haskell to create the Firefighters Burn Institute, which collaborated with UC Davis Medical Center to establish the hospital's burn unit, which opened in 1974. Because of the persistence of Haskell and the institute to demand improvements in standards for firefighting gear, and in the science of treating burn patients, Adams received the best possible treatment and returned to active duty a year after the accident.
Kerri and Kristi Francis were just 3 years, 9 months old and living in Stockton in September 1972.
Their mother, Kathy Francis, taught elementary school, and father Roger recently had left Fremont Junior High for a job at Curtis Creek Elementary in Standard. They were building their home in Sonora and planned to move back home at the end of the school year.
A baby-sitter invited the girls to go to Sacramento for the ice cream outing. Kristi initially wasn't interested, Kerri said. But the sisters were inseparable, and because Kerri wanted to go, Kristi went as well.
A few hours later, Roger and Kathy received a phone call from the baby-sitter telling them a plane had crashed into Farrell's. When they arrived in Sacramento, they learned that the sitter had pulled Kerri from the rubble but had been unable to locate Kristi. They accompanied Kerri first to Sutter Hospital, then to Mercy Children's Hospital.
"We still didn't know what had happened to Kristi," Kathy Francis said.
Roger's mom, Dorothy Francis, identified Kristi's body for authorities. When she joined Roger and Kathy, "she shook her head," Roger Francis said. "We knew. She never spoke about (that moment) again. You never get over it."
"It left a definite hole in all of our lives," Kathy Francis said. "I don't like September. The fall, the leaves falling. I don't know the actual date (of the incident). I block it out, except when something like (the memorial event) reminds me."
The Francis family established an annual scholarship in Kristi's name at Sonora High School, which Kerri attended and where Roger served as assistant principal until his retirement.
Years later, Kerri wanted to do something to remember the victims. She was astounded that Sacramento County planned to place its police and fire headquarters in the same spot Farrell's once occupied. She approached Sacramento's mayor about placing a memorial and was told plans didn't include anything significant.
"They were thinking something like a plaque," Kerri said. "I don't think they were thinking about anything as elaborate as I was."
Bolstered by articles in The Modesto Bee, The Sacramento Bee and other newspapers, she began raising money for the monument. The Firefighters Burn Institute wrote a check for $5,000, and before long, the fund swelled to $32,000. The memorial, which includes a garden and stone monument, was dedicated in 2003.
"It gave me a tremendous sense of peace," said Kerri, now a counselor at Sonora Elementary School. She named one of her daughters Kristin, in her sister's honor.
"I knew it was going to be all right," Kerri said. "Kristi's looking over me."
The decades following the crash weren't particularly kind to the Francis family. Their home in Sonora burned to the ground in 1997. The family lost virtually everything, including Kristi's toys and other keepsakes.
In 2006, friend and Sonora High teacher Jim Albini suffered severe burns when a propane tank exploded at his home. He was taken to the burn unit at UC Davis, which, despite its expertise, could not save him as it did Modesto firefighter Adams three years later.
Adams remembered the 1972 crash. He was 9 years old at the time, living in the Bay Area.
"The key thing was that it was an ice cream parlor," he recalled.
That the crash, involving total strangers and in a place he had never been, would later affect his life in such a monumental way is nothing he could have fathomed.
"Even five or 10 years ago, I still wouldn't have thought it would have affected me in any way," he said.
Firefighters are like that. They know danger lurks. They just never think it will happen to them.
But it did, to Adams and Clevenger.
On the floor of the garage that January day, Adams could feel the burns going from second degree to third, and spreading over his body. Rescued and carried out onto the lawn, he knew he had a chance to survive.
Later, people would question the effectiveness of his gear. But he points out that the gear saved him for the moment and the hospital burn unit for a lifetime.
"My gear did what it was supposed to do," Adams said. "Back in the 1970s, with the injuries I sustained, I would have died. They didn't have the equipment."
He determined to embrace the scarred tissue, the loss of his ears and hair. He returned to work 13 months after the accident and is dedicated to helping minimize the firefighters' risk and to help others, just as the Francis family has worked to find positives from its personal devastation.
"I always looked forward to wound care," Adams said. "It's the most traumatic thing about this, but the better and more aggressive they got with the wound care, the more I could recover."
He recently spoke at a burn survivors conference in Wisconsin. He's active with the Firefighters Burn Institute and the Phoenix Society, a support group for burn victims.
"I'm trying to do a little of what Cliff Haskell did, making the system better," Adams said. "You see the (UC Davis) burn unit. But the firefighting gear has improved partially because of the same 1972 incident. I'm trying to further improve the gear. I think about the beginnings of the Burn Institute quite a bit."
Except that until today, he never had the opportunity to meet the survivors or victims' family members from the tragic crash that led to the founding of the institute.
Jim Adams, meet the Francis family.
Said survivor Kerri Francis McCluskey:
"Something good came out of something so horrific."
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. He can be reached at email@example.com, @jeffjardine57 on Twitter or at (209) 578-2383.