Tragic hotel fire leads to 31-year career for Anaheim Fire & Rescue Battalion Chief

By Elysse James

It was a hotel fire that sparked Battalion Chief Thomas Roche’s interest in the fire service.

He was a boy of 11 in Boston when the Hotel Vendome caught fire and the building collapsed, killing nine firefighters on Father’s Day in June 1972.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, Roche made a life-changing decision.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Roche retires this year after a successful and rewarding 31-year career with Anaheim Fire & Rescue, following in the footsteps of his uncle, a firefighter in Boston.

“Best choice I ever made,” Roche said. He still has the flier advertising for recruits that led to his hiring in 1987.

Retiring Anaheim Fire & Rescue Battalion Chief Thomas Roche reflects on his career.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge

Roche moved to California from Boston to pursue his fire career and after a short stint in the Anaheim Fire & Rescue reserve program he was hired full time.

In an interesting twist of fate, Roche now owns a leather fire helmet that once belonged to Lt. James McCabe, a firefighter who responded to the Hotel Vendome in 1972 and survived the building collapse. The helmet was a gift from Anaheim Fire & Rescue Capt. Aaron Mooney.

Retiring Anaheim Fire & Rescue Battalion Chief Thomas Roche with a hat that survived the Hotel Vendome fire in Boston in 1972.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge

Roche has worked as a reserve, firefighter, paramedic, engineer, training captain, and battalion chief, and is an original member of the Urban Search and Rescue Task Force.

“I worked my way through the ranks and ended up becoming a battalion chief, which is crazy, from where I started from,” Roche said. “To even think that I’d get that far is pretty amazing. I just wanted to be a firefighter and then 31 years later I’m taking the chief’s test.”

Thomas Roche during the San Diego Fire in 2007.
OC Register/Bruce Chambers photo provided by Thomas Roche

He’s worked in every Anaheim Fire & Rescue station except for Station 11.

“Station 1 used to be my favorite,” said Roche, who was at Station 1 for 11 years. “It was two stories, slide the pole, busy house.”

As a paramedic, Roche “delivered probably six or seven babies,” in addition to the regular medical calls.

Roche enjoyed being an engineer and handling the equations for the hydraulics portion.

Anaheim Fire & Rescue Battalion Chief Thomas Roche gets a fist bump from 4-year-old David Tran during a thank you visit to Anaheim Fire Station 11.
File photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge

“You have to do some math in your head and you have to be quick about it,” he said. “If you give the wrong pressure to the firefighter on the hose you’re going to hurt him… you have to be pretty close to your correct calculations if not spot-on. That was an interesting part of the job.”

Over the decades, Roche has adapted with the fire service to using new technology such as computers, medical equipment and techniques, and more advanced radios.

“Everything was handwritten in the log book when I got hired, and now it’s all computerized,” he said.

Firefighter Albert Watson (from left), Firefighter Thomas Roche, Capt. Terry Wilson and Engineer Rick Gustin in a 1990 photo of Anaheim Fire Station 1.
Photo provided by Thomas Roche

“My fifth day here was a big five-alarm fire,” Roche recalls. “It was at Brookhurst and Broadway, a wood frame construction, and the Santa Ana winds are blowing. The adrenaline rush is always there when you’re fighting fire… when you’re driving down the street and see a column of smoke going up, knowing you’re going to get there and hopefully do some good and save some property.”

Following 9/11, Roche went to New York to deliver $85,000 Anaheim Fire & Rescue had raised for the families of the New York firefighters. They attended four funerals New York firefighters were unable to attend because they were still working at the World Trade Center.

Anaheim Fire & Rescue Battalion Chief Thomas Roche has a new badge pinned to him by his wife, Cindy Roche, in 2016.
File photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge

“It was emotional, and just to see the stuff and talk to the firefighters out there, and give them money in the stations was pretty cool,” he said. Every year since, several Anaheim firefighters visit New York and march to One World Trade Center with a New York fire station.

Roche plans to enjoy his retirement by travelling and spending more time with his wife, Cindy, and daughters Julie and Caitlin.

He leaves this advice for future firefighters: “Just do the best job you can and continue your hard work and always be the person that can do the right thing for somebody. Be the person that makes a difference in the world.”