Alfred Walter Betti – SFFD – Engine 23

Back when times were a bit less complicated I had a non human person pal named Sage. 
She was my companion for about 12 years. 
She was insightful, mischievous, kind, loyal, and much to my amazement, a late night scribe. 
Occasionally, I noticed  things out of place on my desk, though I never imagined she was pounding away on the keyboard while I snoozed the night away.
The following is one of her tales.

Updated June 2021


“Let me share a little about the human I share my life with-

There’s a lot I could tell you about him, but right now, I want to tell you the story about a fire fighter’s helmet.

OK, a little background.

One day my human friend reached to the top of the bookshelf and retrieved a leather firefighters helmet. It had been up there since before I arrived to organize and revitalize his life.

He called me over to look at it, asking me if I thought the firefighters family might like to have the helmet re-enter their lives. Rhetorical, of course, as I hadn’t yet shared my unique gift of understanding speech with him.

Anyway, the helmet was obviously reasonably old as it was weathered and cracked in spots. On the front was hand painted “Engine 23 S.F.F.D.” Under the neck flap, neck protector, whatever, was a name – Betti, with the number 005 hand-painted just above the name.

“You know what, Sage, I’m going to see if we can get this back to this man’s family.”

I panted appropriately before heading to nap in the sun. Hey, it’s Seattle! When the sun shines on our little garden, I’m out there-

A little while later, I heard him on the phone with the San Francisco Fire Department’s Museum, where he asked all sorts of questions about the man Betti and whether or not they had any suggestions on how he could track down anyone who could help him return the helmet to the family.

I knew he wasn’t getting anywhere, as he then called the San Francisco Public Library asking about archives, obituaries, and whether or not they had any advice on researching this man, as he was coming up short everywhere.

He spent hours online when he should have been looking to our company commitments, trying to find this Betti fellow in any records tied to the fire department in San Francisco.

After a couple of days of phone calls and endless searches online, he gave up returning the helmet to the shelf.

Not much to go on-

About two weeks later, he called me, “Hey Sage, I never looked into where Engine 23 was and if there are any clues there to follow.”

He jumped online to find out that Engine 23 had been an engine company in the neighborhood in San Francisco, where he spent most of his youth.

A neighborhood that abutted sand dunes stretching west towards the Pacific when Engine 23 moved to its 3022 Washington Street in 1893.

Now he was off to the races.

Forget looking for income or writing the books he was working on-

He was committed to finding out who this man Betti was and why the helmet was sitting on our bookshelf.

He got on the phone again and got a hold of a different person at the Fire Department Museum.

Whoever gave him the firefighter’s name who acted as the Director of the museum when he wasn’t out fighting fires.

Himself dashed off an email that he read to me as if I was going to be his editor. In it, he explained that he had no idea how this helmet arrived in our little abode. He told the fella that the helmet had hung in their family cabin for years and finally came his way after certain items were distributed from the cabin after its sale some years before now. He couldn’t remember if he had ever heard why or how the helmet had entered their lives. He just shared that he remembered seeing it in the cabin as far back as he could remember.

He also told the man that he had never heard of or known anyone named Betti.

Before hearing anything back from the San Francisco Fire Department, he did some research on the firehouse finding the following photo shot sometime after the firehouse, Engine #23, was disbanded, around 1953.

Engine 23 has been relocated out in the Sea Cliff area near the Pacific miles from it’s historic home.

In a couple of days, my pal heard back from a firefighter named Mike, who had gathered quite a bit of information on Mr. Betti.

Alfred Walter Betti

Born 22 November 1901

Joined S.F.F.D. 12 July 1927

Helmet # 005

San Francisco Fire Department

Engine # 23

Died of a heart attack while climbing a ladder at the St. Elizabeth Hospital Fire 2 June 1952

With this information my human contacted the S.F.F.D.administrative offices to determine if there were any family members who might be interested in receiving the helmet.

In the Admin office, Mindy wasn’t initially hopeful she could locate the old records but said she would give it a shot as she thought the idea of returning the helmet was a great one, as she knew how much it would mean to family members.

Phone call after phone call, email after email, to all sorts of supportive people who all became engaged in trying to find if there was any family left to contact.

Mike, the firefighter, shared in a phone call how he was fourth-generation S.F.F.D. and had no equipment from any of his family members, as they had all been discarded. When my friend asked if a helmet would be an important item to have back in a family, Mike conveyed; his emotions  through the distance and phone as he choked out just how much it would truly mean.

When my friend hung up, he had tears in his eyes-

I realized that this wasn’t going to end until Wild Mick ( I’ll tell the story on his moniker some other time ) had found someone who could definitely tell him if there was any Betti family left to contact.

While waiting for responses from the Historical Society, California Fire Fighters blog members, San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner, San Francisco Library, S.F.F.D. Administration offices and Firefighters Mike, Paul, Terry, and Bob, my friend, tried to find a newspaper article on the fire at the St. Elizabeth Hospital.
It seemed that there would be coverage of a firefighter dying at a fire.

After talking with one of the newspaper reporters,, it became clear that Alfred Betti dying of a heart attack at a fire may not be so newsworthy, though the archivist would continue to look for us.

Did I say us?

Yes, I was getting as excited as he was though not so much that I was going to blurt out any suggestions.

OK, a couple of days ago, Firefighter Mike called telling my man that he had some more information on Alfred Betti that he would forward by email. The exciting thing was that Alfred had a son named Phillip, who was living in Kihei, Hawaii.

Mike had called him, as did Mindy, though neither knew the other had found him.

Apparently, Phillip, aged 84, did not have anyone to leave the helmet to and would be pleased if my man would give it to the S.F.F.D.

Later the email arrived:

 “… Alfred Walter Betti, born 22 Nov 1901 in California,

died 2 Jun 1952 in San Francisco.

SSN# 56930xxxx

Alfred’s parents were:

Antone Betti, born about 1868 in Italy

Lena Dagnatine, born about 1879 in California”

Another email from Firefighter Mike revealed the following:

“Alfred married in about 1927, Carmel Ann Callaghan, born 7 Jul 1899, died 13 Jun 1986. Social Security says she died in Maui County, HI, but the California Death Index states that she died in Sonoma. Her SSN# was 559261xxx.

The 1930 census indicates that they had no children at the time.

Alfred had a brother named Leslie P. Betti, born 19 Nov 1904 in San Francisco and died 12 Apr 1967 in San Francisco. He married Myrtle L. Sparks.

There is a family tree that contains Leslie but does not list any children for him.

I found an obituary, and it lists one child, Phillip R. Betti

Phillip R. Betti, born 26 Nov 1927…”

Yesterday my friend called Phillip in Hawaii.

Phillip told him that he had not thought about the days surrounding his father’s death for many years.

He said he was so happy that so many people in the S.F.F.D. were concerned enough to take their precious personal time to care so much about returning his dad’s helmet to him.

He told my friend that he had just returned from the Korean War when his pop died. He shared memories of hanging out in the firehouse watching the men string up the hoses in the tower. He told further stories of helping the firemen clean the truck. They allowed him to wear boots that came up to his waist.

He repeatedly told my friend how happy he was to be reliving these memories that had faded for so long. He told my human about moving to Hawaii and having a good life full of the usual ups and downs.

He said he was happy that he had been found and that the helmet would return to the S.F.F.D. to be put on display honoring his father.

After some silence, my friend rang off.

He sat there staring out the window, wiping tears away as they rolled down his cheek.

And you should wonder why I hang with this man-

Your pal,


Screenshot_2020-06-16 Post Edit(1)
P.S.Thank you, Mike, Paul, and Mindy, for helping my human with his quest.Heartfelt thanks to the S.F.F.D. Museum people, SF Library, California Historical Society, SF Historical Society, St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, SF Chronicle.That all of you took your time to help has been so heartwarming. Thank you, S.F.F.D., for all the adventures you gave my humans dad as he raced behind your engines whenever you were on a call – Sage
The helmet now resides in the S.F.F.D. Museum, 655 Presidio Avenue, San Francisco, California, 94115

Copyright © 2021/2008 M.Barrett Miller
All rights reserved.

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