STILLWATER, Minn. — Tim “T.J.” Bell vividly remembers his first big fire.
It was at a Queen Anne mansion on West Chestnut Street, and flames were visible when the rookie Stillwater Fire Department volunteer arrived on the scene.
“I was sent upstairs to open up all the windows, to ventilate it,” he said. “When I came back to the stairwell, all I could see were flames coming up through the steps. There was no other way down — either wait for a ladder or jump.”
Bell, 71, who started working for the Stillwater Fire Department on Oct. 7, 1969, is believed to be the longest-tenured volunteer firefighter in Minnesota.
City officials marked his 50th anniversary by honoring him at the Stillwater City Council meeting on Tuesday night and proclaiming Wednesday as “Timothy J. Bell Day” in the city.
Bell also worked for the Stillwater Police Department for 30 years, retiring as a captain in 1998.
“In an era where the average volunteer firefighter serves five years or less, 50 years is truly an incredible feat — one for the history books,” said Mayor Ted Kozlowksi.
Bell, who now works as a paid, on-call firefighter/engineer, served as a captain of the volunteer crew for 16 years and as its assistant chief for 19 years.
15,000 service calls
Bell has responded to an estimated 15,000 service calls, which means “he’s basically dealt with everybody in Stillwater at some point — in times when we needed help,” Kozlowski said.
He went back to being a firefighter in 2003 “to free up some time and let some of the other younger guys get a little experience in the officer positions,” he said.
Bell is a natural leader and a mentor, Fire Chief Stuart Glaser said.
“He’s extremely level-headed and calm under pressure,” Glaser said. “He’s a very reassuring presence. I’ve learned a lot from him.”
Family in footsteps
Bell grew up in Bayport; his father, Irving, was a part-time policeman and volunteer fireman for the city. He graduated from Stillwater High School in 1966 and started working for the Stillwater Police Department on Jan. 1, 1969.
“Like any kid, I was always fascinated with fire trucks and firemen and police careers,” Bell said. “I knew when I was a young kid that that was the direction that I was going to head.”
Bell is the patriarch of a three-generation crew. His son, Jon, 51, and grandson, Jake, 33, also are Stillwater firefighters.
“I know a lot of departments that have father-sons, but I don’t know of any other that has three generations,” Tim Bell said.
Drownings, fatal fires, explosions
In 2008, Bell was one of two rescue divers who went into the frigid St. Croix River to rescue four people from an SUV that had plunged into the water.
Diver Jonas Werpy pulled three people out of the 33-degree water before Bell went in and pulled up a fourth. When Bell placed the woman in the inflatable rescue boat, she rolled over and gasped.
Two of the SUV’s occupants died within days, but the two others, including the woman Bell rescued, survived.
“That was probably one of the most dramatic things I was ever involved in,” he said.
His most traumatic call came on the night of Jan. 22, 1982.
A fire at Brine’s Meat Market on Main Street caused the death of two firefighters from the Mahtomedi Fire Department. Bell’s friend and fellow firefighter Kevin Charlsen nearly perished.
“The roof collapsed, and they went down … ,” Bell said. “A lot of the guys had bad memories of that night, and I was no different. For many years there, I would start to talk about it, and I would start to cry.”
Friends thought Bell had died during a call involving a fire at Junker Sanitation in Oak Park Heights. A 55-gallon drum of solvent blew up and “threw three of us back 70, 80 feet,” he said. “The other guys on the scene thought we were dead because all they saw was this huge explosion. We disappeared in the debris.”
Firefighters are a tight-knit group because everything they do involves teamwork, he said.
“When you’re out there working as a police officer, most of the time you’re an individual doing things,” he said. “In the fire service, when we go out on a call, there could be 30 of us, and we’re all working together. It just draws the guys closer.”
A half-century of change
Things have changed a lot in 50 years.
When he started, there was no 911. Anyone reporting a fire called the fire station on a dedicated phone line — 439-1313 — that was staffed 24/7. The firefighter on duty would answer the phone, write down the information and pick up the receiver on another phone that automatically dialed every firefighter in town.
“It would ring just a steady ring at their house until they were answered,” Bell said. “That’s the only way we knew there was a fire.”
Another major change: pay.
“When I started, we got $20 a month whether we made one call or 100 calls. That was all we got,” Bell said. “It was probably three or four years before we started getting paid by the hour. We made $3 an hour. It’s a public service. That’s basically it.”
Bell, who walked about 40 miles a week before suffering a muscle injury two years ago, has no plans to retire.
Monitoring the radio or working in a limited capacity holds no appeal, either.
“I go into fires and drive the truck and run the pump and stuff,” he said. “When I get to the point where I can’t go in the fire, I will retire because we don’t have room for people with limited abilities. I would retire and make room for somebody else to get on, who can do the job, but I haven’t reached that point yet.”