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Trial by Fire

No hoses. No ladders. Just moxie. How four cops rescued residents of a burning building

Photograph by Dustin Snipes

For two teams of LAPD officers assigned to the San Fernando Valley, the most adrenaline-pumping day of their professional lives began with a false sense of reprieve. The four had been dispatched on a quiet Sunday morning to a Special Weapons and Tactics operation but were called off when the suspect, who had barricaded himself with a rifle, was disarmed. As they returned to routine patrol in their black-and-whites, they spotted smoke pouring from a two-story apartment building in Canoga Park. They converged on North Owensmouth Avenue, where they saw that no fire trucks had yet arrived to battle the flames billowing from the carport underneath one of the units and near several others. It would be up to the officers to get the residents out. For their bravery that morning in May 2008, the four won medals of valor last year. As the LAPD prepares for its 2010 awards next month, the officers recall their actions.

Vincent Rojas, 32, assigned to the Mission Division at the time: We were northbound on Topanga, and I looked over to my right and I saw this plume of smoke, black smoke. I pointed it out to my partner, and I said, “Let’s go see if the fire department needs any assistance with traffic and crowd control.”

Hayley Smith, 36, Rojas’s partner: It was a big, round, billowing cloud, and it was pitch-black, solid black, going straight up in the sky. It was probably 10 to 15 feet above the building. We turned on the street, and you could smell the burning the closer you got.

Rojas: I’m thinking, “Oh, shit! Here we go.”

Laura Gonzalez, 26, assigned to the Devonshire Division: Officer Salazar and I were westbound on Roscoe, and I’m looking out the window. One of my training officers always said, “Look at the second story of apartments. If it’s a gang location, they shoot from the second story down.” So out of habit I was looking at the second floor, up toward the sky. My partner was driving. He had no clue. I nudged him. “Fire?”

Heriberto “Eddie” Salazar, 36, Gonzalez’s partner: I say, “That’s pretty big, you know. We better go down there.” Not knowing what was going to happen, I said, “Partner, I’m going to make you a hero today.” I’m zooming up Owensmouth, and then I hit Parthenia, and there are businesses back in there. Before I know it, we’re practically in front of the fire. I realized it was an apartment building, and I’m, like, “We’re the only ones here.” Officers Rojas and Smith show up at the same time—we are going north, and they are coming south—and we kind of, like, screeech! 

Rojas: I’m saying to myself, “There’s no fire department here yet.”

Gonzalez: Adrenaline starts kicking in. All four of us get out, and we start running toward the apartment complex. I don’t even remember if I closed the door or not. I just ran out of the car.

Salazar: My fear was, “Oh, my God, there are people still in there.”

Gonzalez: You just want to get them out. I was not scared, not worried, not panicking. I had no feelings. Just “Go!”

The officers raced up a narrow driveway toward a center courtyard.

Smith: The cars were on fire in the carport.

Salazar: There were explosions—popping, popping, popping—because the fire was starting to consume the building. And crackling. It was loud. I have a wood fireplace, and you hear a little crackling, and it pops here and there. This was a thousand times as much as that.

Rojas: The tires were on fire. The tires were obviously under high pressure, so when they’re in flames, they explode.

Gonzalez: I thought it was the gas line.

Rojas: Gas lines worried me the most. Gasoline tanks in the cars would have been less of an explosion than natural gas because there would be more volume of natural gas throughout the apartments. It wouldn’t be just in the carport.

Gonzalez: It might go from apartment to apartment blowing up.

Rojas: We heard a big explosion.

Salazar: It was, like, boom! And I’m, “This is bad.” We all just kind of froze for a split second. I’m thinking, “This is obviously dangerous.” The worst part is that it’s unpredictable. I’m thinking, “OK, now we’ve got to move faster because if it blew up once, the next explosion will be bigger because the fire is even more intense.”

Smith: When the popping was becoming louder and bigger and some people watching from the street were kind of yelling, there was a time when you’re worried about everybody. You kind of forget about yourself because you’re in the moment, and you just want to make sure everybody gets out.

Salazar: I could see there was a guy in the carport.

Gonzalez: A guy with an extinguisher, trying to put out the fire.

Rojas: I ran toward him. Two of the vehicles were on fire. I remember one of the hoods was up, and the front portion of the car toward the motor was engulfed in flames. It was only an eight-foot ceiling, so the smoke and flames were coming back down and creating a chemical fire because now all of the car was on fire. That’s why the smoke was so black, because it was all plastic melting.

With the apartment just above the carport, there was only the floor between the residents and the fire, and the fire was out of control. What I feel is a high amount of heat. Incredible. It was like walking into the sun. The gentleman trying to extinguish the fire was about ten feet from the flames. His extinguisher was like a little stream of water on an inferno. It was having no effect.

I told him, “Let’s go, it’s time to leave.”

He said, “No, I’m not leaving.”

I said, “You’re leaving anyway.”

I escorted him out, and when I pushed him around the corner, I go back to see if there’s anybody else in there. The carport was engulfed in flames. It was just black, a very thick, intense black smoke. There was nobody else that I could see. “Clear!”

I turned around to leave and then, boom! Tires and chemicals exploding, maybe gas. A loud, deep boom!

Gonzalez: I turned. I see white smoke, ashes all around, and I see Officer Rojas fall. It looked like he was pushed down. I thought, “Oh, my God!”

Meanwhile the other two officers ran along both floors to most of the apartment units, which opened onto outside walkways.

Salazar: There’s no knocking. We’re kicking doors, and at the same time people are running out. Those locks were sturdy. Sometimes there’s a two-kicker, and sometimes it’s a one-kicker.

Smith: We were yelling, “Fire! Everybody get out! Police! Get out! There’s a fire!” A lot of people are skeptical to answer their doors. “Police! Get out! Fire!” Sometimes they are kind of slow to react, and we were, like, “Come on, you need to get out!”

Salazar: I didn’t know what was exploding. I remember thinking, “I have to run faster. I have to knock this door down on the first try.” It felt like my soul was going to outrun my body.

Smith: The popping was pretty loud.

Salazar: The people I saw looked like they were in pajamas. They weren’t worried about their possessions. They just ran out with hardly anything.

Smith: There’s all this chaos going on around you, and you have to ignore it at times because you’re focused on what your task is.

Salazar: There was a lady on the second floor. At first when I looked into her apartment, it was empty. So I was making my way through it, going into the bedrooms to make sure. As I’m coming in she’s coming out of one of the bedrooms. It kind of startled me. I asked her if anybody else was in there.

She looked confused.

I said, “Lady, you’ve got to get out.”

She said, “Oh, I’m going, I’m going.”

She was breathing heavy. She seemed a little disoriented.

I asked her, “Do you need help?”

She must have been between 50 and 60 years old. She was wobbling. She goes, “No, no, no. I’m OK.”

“OK. Let’s go.”

 

In the carport, debris from the explosion was flying through the air. 

Gonzalez: I didn’t know if Officer Rojas was going to get back up. I was going to run toward him.

Rojas: I’d fallen forward, diving for cover.

Gonzalez: I didn’t see his head hit the ground, but I was not sure. Finally he got up.

Rojas: I had just ruined another uniform. That wool doesn’t take well to anything.

Gonzalez: On the second floor there was a nurse in a corner apartment who also didn’t know what was going on. He came out all sleepy. He hadn’t heard anything or smelled anything. He was in what seemed to me to be scrubs—that’s why I call him a nurse.

He said, “Do I need to go now?”

And I said, “Yes!”

I remember him asking me, “Should I get my shoes?”

I was, like, “Grab your shoes and go!”

Smith: One family upstairs had a baby, relatively young, probably about six months old. I helped grab a diaper bag and get them out.

Salazar: Now Officer Rojas and I were running up the stairs.

Rojas: We had to evacuate the apartments directly above the fire in the carport. Those apartments still had their doors closed and were engulfed in flames. I was thinking, “We’ve got to get everybody out. Right now. Yesterday.”

Salazar: It was getting more intense. Instinctively we went to the most dangerous apartment. Officer Rojas was in front of me. We didn’t say anything to each other. We just burst in. I went right in after him. I could feel the extreme heat, and the smoke was extremely thick. I couldn’t see him anymore because the smoke was so black. I extended my arm to where I could feel his back, and then I went forward with him.

Rojas: There was a window, and light was coming in. We worked our way toward the light, and then I realized it was flames. All flames. The light was flames from the carport down below. I think the window was broken, too, so the flames had a way to get into the apartment. We worked our way toward that light, searching the best we could. There were closets. You never know if someone’s hiding —or in the bathroom. A kid. You know how kids get.

Salazar: I was trying to use more my sense of touch and to see if I could hear anything. I knew we had only seconds to get this done.

Rojas: The sweat was getting into my eyes. I was hot.

Salazar: The thing I remember was the taste of the smoke.

Rojas: Burnt plastic.

Salazar: It was an awful taste.

Rojas: Chemicals.

Salazar: ?I’m staying with him. He yells, “Clear!” The other apartments were easier. I could see farther—walk into a room and see that nobody’s there. But I’m thinking, “We still have to move faster. This fire is really going.” I’m telling myself, “We gotta move faster, we gotta move faster.”

Rojas and Salazar joined the other two officers downstairs. There were still no firefighters in sight. 

Salazar: I saw one door that hadn’t been opened.

Smith: I remember us yelling to the people outside who were kind of milling around: “Does anybody live down here?”

Salazar: I went to kick it, and I cracked the door.

Gonzalez: I said, “Wait! There’s smoke on the floor, coming underneath the door!”

Salazar: I knew what she was talking about. Have you ever watched the movie Backdraft? Remember that part where they open the door and the flame comes shooting out? So I break the window—yeah, that makes a lot more sense. So I’m, like, “Hey, is anybody in here?”

And then Officer Rojas comes out of nowhere and runs right through the door—blam! With no regard for his own safety.

And I go, “OK, that’s clear.”

Rojas: I might add, I’m a linebacker for the LAPD football team.

Salazar: After everything was over, we were talking about it, and I said to Officer Gonzalez, “Hey, I knew that you were talking about Backdraft.” A fireman overheard us, and he just shook his head and said, “Everybody wants to be a fireman.”

*****

Despite the commotion and the smoke, some residents with their doors locked and their windows closed were unaware of the danger.

Gonzalez: In one downstairs apartment not attached to the carport there was no answer. We knocked again, and we were about to break the window.

Salazar: I could hear music, so I kind of knew somebody was in there. I knocked really hard on the door, and this lady opened the door and she was looking at me, and I’m looking at her, like, “Well?”

Gonzalez: I remember seeing children. I told her, “You need to go.”

Salazar: Three little kids are playing on the living room floor. One kid is coloring, one kid is playing with little toy cars, and the other kid is watching television. Their heads were down, and they were focused on what they were doing. The music was blaring loud.

Gonzalez: The kids were happy.

Salazar: I’m, like, “Lady, you gotta get out!”

There was no time to explain, so I grabbed her and I pulled her out and I pointed to the fire. “Look!”

She started screaming at the top of her lungs. The little kids were playing, and as soon as she yelled, all three of them kind of looked up. They were all, “Aaaah!” She started running back into the apartment. “Aaaaah! We gotta get out!” she told them. “We gotta get out!”

The kids started jumping around her, and I was, like, “OK, lady, come on, let’s go! Let’s go! Let’s go!”

Everybody was looking for their shoes in the living room.

Then one of the kids was, like, “Ah, the dog! The dog!” The kid might have been nine. I see her run back in. I couldn’t stop her.

She went back into a bedroom, and when she ran out she had the dog in her arms. It looked like a Chihuahua. The dog was the only smart one because he was actually underneath the bed, scared.

Gonzalez: It was just amazing that people smell the smoke and don’t come out and see where it’s coming from.

Salazar: As they ran out, the lady is looking at me, just yelling, “Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you!”

Next door was another apartment building. 

Smith: We saw smoke billowing over. It’s a really thin, narrow driveway. As you know with wildfires, a spark can go and catch a tree on fire and then the whole next building.

Gonzalez: Ashes were flying everywhere, embers.

Smith: There were cars all along the back. I thought, “If these catch fire and start jumping, the next building will be affected.” I said, “Let’s go evacuate next door because the smoke is starting to spread,” and Officer Gonzalez and I ran down this driveway and went around next door. You walk through an entrance, and there was a huge garden in the middle, so it was much larger comparatively.

Gonzalez: We started knocking on doors, trying to get the people out on the far back of the apartment because the fire was in the back.

Smith: I started up the stairs, and people were coming out with all of their stuff. I bumped into a lady with a little birdcage. She already had packed up her stuff and was walking toward the street. She was carrying a bunch of stuff, and the little bird was kind of swaying from side to side.

*****

By now more police had arrived, along with six companies of Los Angeles firefighters.

Smith: They started parking, and I saw one jump off a fire truck and start running up the driveway. We told them that as far as we know, the place is emptied out. They’re already in their work mode, and they just kind of hear a glimpse of our statements, and they kept running right past us.

Salazar: I remember saying, “Great! They’re here.” As soon as I saw them, I was, like, “Do your thing.” They were just pouring in. They had yellow helmets, and they were ready for battle.

Gonzalez: There was a flood of yellow.

Salazar: I’m starting to take it all in, and I feel the urge to spit up because I still had that taste in my mouth, and I feel tightness in my chest, and I couldn’t stand up straight. I guess when the adrenaline started to go down, that’s when I started coughing more violently.

And a sergeant was, like, “Hey, you know what, let’s get you to an ambulance.”

I walked about 100 feet to the ambulance, and they started working on me. That lady that had been upstairs—the one who was kind of wobbling around—I saw them working on her.

Smith: We were coughing and having a hard time breathing. Our supervisors said, “Let’s take all of you guys in and make sure that you’re OK.”

Salazar: The ambulance guys gave me oxygen and albuterol. We went to Northridge Hospital, and they took blood to check my levels. It wasn’t too bad, but it was still bad enough.

Smith: My husband is LAPD, too, and he checked the computer and saw that I was at West Hills Hospital, so he showed up.

Gonzalez: After they sent us home, that’s where I really had time to think about what had happened, really go through the details of seeing my partner knocking on doors, telling the lady to get out with the kids. That’s when it hit me. Once the adrenaline stops, you start shaking. I felt drained. You sit down, and you’re thinking about it, and you’re, like, “Oh, my God, what did I just do?”

Salazar: Later that night I called my mom and said, “Put on the news.” It showed a video of the apartment complex, of the rear of the carport where it looked like a bomb had gone off. Then they cut to a witness who said there were a lot of explosions. From there they cut to my partner and myself. We were in the rescue ambulance, and we were being worked on.

The phone rings, and it’s my mom: “Are you crazy? What were you doing? Don’t be doing that!”

What was I going to do—just stand there? I just can’t stand there.

You really don’t know what you’re made of until you’re faced with something like that. All of us just reacted. There was no question what we were going to do.

*****

The four officers were examined at San Fernando Valley hospitals for smoke inhalation. A witness later told the Los Angeles Fire Department that the blaze had started on the west side of the carport under wooden storage cabinets containing flammable and combustible liquids. Investigators could not determine what had ignited the flames.   

 Wendy Witherspoon, a former staff writer for the Los Angeles Times, is a freelance journalist.

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