Left, the “Night Rescue” painting by Australian artist Howard Totenhofer, 1960. Right, the original photo which appeared in the Vernon News off which the painting was based.

A storied History

Based on a historical fire, “The Night Rescue” painting comes to the MAV with a storied history. This special blog post is courtesy of Programming and Marketing Coordinator, Jenna Kiesman.

“Anyone left in the building would have perished” said Fire Chief Fred Little speaking to the Vernon News reporter on the scene; “we had to take chances, something we only do when life is involved.”

The date was April 22nd, 1960. The fire began late on a Friday evening, around 11:00 pm, when the flames were first spotted inside the Bagnall Building. Black smoke swept through the offices of Interior Appliances, located on 32nd Avenue in downtown Vernon, and then rose to the suites above.

The Vernon Fire Department arrived on the scene shortly after 11:00 pm and a dramatic night operation ensued with two women, Ada Hitchcock and Winnifred Neff, being rescued from the upstairs suites with an aerial ladder.

Both women were later admitted to Vernon Jubilee Hospital for smoke inhalation and, thankfully, the only other casualties were minor injuries to two fire fighters.

vERNON nEWS cOVERAGE

On the following Monday morning, the Vernon News newspaper featured a black & white photograph taken at the scene of the fire on the Friday night. Under the title “Rescue Two Elderly People, Appliance Store Gutted,” the photograph captures the look of relief and confusion on Winnifred Neff’s face as she is lifted down while wrapped in a blanket.

From recent research, we know the names of most of the others in the photograph, such as Fire Chief Fred Little (with glasses, holding Mrs. Neff) and Firefighters Jack Vecqueray (also helping Mrs. Neff) and Bill Georgeson (behind Vecqueray). Also pictured are Irish Connelly (above the Fire Chief) and in RCMP uniform is Officer Ken Coburn.

The news article recounted a harrowing fire and timely rescue of the two women who were trapped upstairs by the smoke.

“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,” recounted Little. 

This letter is included on the reverse of the “Night Rescue” painting.

Guy Bagnall and Howard Totenhofer

The next part of the story takes place in October of the same year. Guy Bagnall, who was a longtime Vernon resident and the original owner of the Bagnall Building where the fire occurred, commissioned a painting to memorialize the lifesaving efforts of the Vernon Fire Department.

 “The Night Rescue,” was painted by Australian artist Howard Totenhofer, who was working in the Okanagan Valley at the time. Totenhofer used the photograph from the front page of the Vernon News as his inspiration for the painting. Totenhofer’s choice of pastel pink for Mrs. Neff’s clothing and encircling blanket serves to highlight her stunned expression in the centre of the composition.

“The Night Rescue” painting was officially presented to Fire Chief Fred Little and the Officers and Men of the fire department on October 14th, 1960. The painting originally hung in Vernon Fire Department location and then was later moved to storage.

On Saturday, May 20th, 2023, members of Fred Little’s extended family will reunite with “The Night Rescue” painting at the Vernon Fire Hall in a small private event. In a demonstration, the Little Family will receive the painting from David Lind, current Fire Chief of the Vernon Fire Department, and then hand it over to Collections Registrar Carolyn Ben of the Museum & Archives of Vernon (MAV). The MAV has accepted “The Night Rescue” painting into our permanent collection and it will be on display as of May 24th, 2023.

Author’s note: In February this year, I was lucky to be introduced to Alan & Warren Little, both sons of Fire Chief Fred Little, when the painting was being evaluated as a possible acquisition to the Museum’s collection. I have utilized the Little Family’s research in this report and I sincerely appreciate their generous spirit and diligent research related to “The Night Rescue” story and the dramatic historical event.   

To explore more of Vernon’s history, check out our other blog posts!

Jenna Kiesman, Programming and Marketing Coordinator