Firefighter dies in restaurant blaze
By Richard Nordwind
Herald staff writer
A firefighter was killed and four others injured battling
a predawn fire today that destroyed the banquet room of the
Proud Bird restaurant near Los Angeles International Airport,
Los Angeles City Firefighter Benjamin Pinel was
pronounced dead at Centinela Hospital about 6:30 a.m., according
to Fire Chief Don Manning.
Pinel died after suffering smoke inhalation when he
collapsed inside the burning building and remained, there for 15
to 20 minutes, Manning said.
Manning said Pinel apparently became
"disoriented" in the building.
The blaze caused more than $1 million damage to the
facility that overlooks an airport runway, Manning said.
Pinel was the first firefighter to die from injuries
sustained on duty since January 1981. The young firefighter
had a wife and baby daughter who was born in \July.
The four other injured firefighters were reported in
stable condition. Three suffered heat exhaustion and smoke
inhalation and another a burned hand in the blaze.
The fire which bean shortly before 5 a.m. --when the
restaurant was closed--shot flames from the roof of the
restaurant at 11022 Aviation Blvd. the fire department reported.
Flames engulfed the rear building of the large facility,
including the restaurant's main banquet hall and storage rooms.
Patterson said 23 fire companies and eight rescue
ambulances were sent to the blaze which burned out of control
for almost three hours. The roof collapsed and the rear of
the restaurant was "gutted' in the flames.
Several other firefighters tried repeatedly to rescue
Pinel but were prevented from finding him because of dense smoke
and intense heart, Manning said.
Pinel became a firefighter in March 1983 and served with
Engine Company 54. His brother, Mike, is also a firefighter.
The four injured firefighters were also brought to Centinela.
Two were released by mid-morning and another transferred to
Brotman Memorial Hospital's burn unit.
Don Shapiro, a spokesman for Specialty Restaurants Corp.
which owns the Proud Bird, said only about one-third of the popular
eating place was destroyed.
The Proud Bird Restaurant Fire
Shortly after midnight, December 4, 1984 burglars hauled
away a large commercial refrigerator and a freezer from The
Proud Bird restaurant, 11022 South Aviation Boulevard, immediately
east of Los Angeles International Airport. Before leaving
the large restaurant, the intruders set at least three fires,
notably in three sofas in widely-scattered areas of the Proud
During the next hours, the fires spread into The Proud Bird's
cavernous attic of around 225,000 cubic feet. The attic
was compartmentalized by a labyrinth of wood and other
flammables. About 4:50 a.m., Airport Police Officers Joe
Ransfer and Robert Lopez, were on routine patrol when they saw
flames piercing the roof and a fire inside the single-story restaurant.
OCD was immediately called and at 4:54 a.m., Task Forces
95, and 5, Engine 80 and Battalion 4 Chief Kenneth Brass
answered the alarm. Recognizing the obviously heavy
involvement of the 130-by-175 grand ballroom's attic, greater alarm
calls brought 23 companies of firefighters and more chief officers,
including Division 2 Assistant Chief Dave Parsons and Deputy
Chief Don Anthony.
Trucks 5, 64, 66 and 95 laddered the roof and discovered
an unusually difficult ventilation problem. The Proud Bird
not only had a thick roof, but a 10-to-12 foot attic which had
purposely been designed to soundproof the restaurant as
commercial airline jets passed over the restaurant while landing
at Los Angeles International Airport. Engine companies,
meanwhile, laid hoselines into the ballroom area where
firefighters saw sofas as well as dining room tables and chairs burning.
Even as they cut holes in the roof, truck company firefighters
discovered their standard ventilation tactics were
ineffective. The maze of ceiling and roof supports,
segmented into 10 areas, provided many concealed spawning areas
for the propagation of fire. As thick black smoke puffed
from the ventilation cuts, firefighters used their longest pike
poles in attempts to punch holes through the ceiling.
Other firefighters, working with pike poles from the inside,
tried to pull down the ceiling to gain access to the pockets of
It quickly became evident that effective ventilation was
virtually impossible and the ballroom area would have to be
abandoned to the flames. The fire would burn through the
roof and vent itself, at which time the firefighters would be
forced to fall back to an exterior attack with heavy streams
from aerial ladder pipes, wagon batteries and portable monitors.
Thirty-six minutes after the first alarm, firefighters
were continuing to stubbornly battle to control the fire with an
interior attack, coupled with roof ventilation. At 5:30
a.m., Capt. Jim N. DiGrado and Firefighters Walter T. Barnett
and Benjamin Pinel of Engine 54 were advancing a
one-and-one-half inch hoseline into the ballroom. Nearby,
Capt. Charles L. Mackie and Firefighters Isaac A. Burks and
Randall J. Beach of Engine 66, were similarly stretching a line
into the ballroom.
Pinel was advancing the nozzle and Barnett was pulling
hose while Mackie cleared away furniture. A violent
flashover fireballed across the entire ceiling of the mammoth
ballroom and instantly created untenable heat and thick smoke
conditions. Engine 66 firefighters fled as did DiGrado and
Barnett of Engine 54. Outside, these burned and
smoke-sickened firefighters discovered that Pinel had not escaped
Firefighters immediately plunged into the vicious heat
and thick black smoke to find Pinel. Among them was
Firefighter Johnny Garcia of Truck 64. Garcia followed the
hoseline to the nozzle, but Pinel was not there. Somewhere
in the hot murk, Garcia heard the low-air-warning bell on
Pinel's breathing apparatus and the sound of the personal alarm
device on Pinel's turnout coat.
When Garcia's air supply ran low, he hurried from the
building, got a fresh bottle and again went in after
Pinel. This time he heard only Pinel's personal
alarm. Still Garcia could not find him. Forced to go
back for still another air bottle, Garcia made a third attempt
to find Pinel, but now heard nothing which could lead him to
wherever Pinel had fallen.
The attic fire worsened as firefighters desperately
searched for Pinel whose body was soon found about 75-feet from the
nozzle. Pinel, 29, joined the LAFD on March 14, 1983,and
was survived buy his wife, Carol, a six-month-old daughter, Nicole,
and a brother, Firefighter Michael Pinel of Task Force
66. Garcia was awarded the Medal of Valor for his attempts
to rescue Pinel.
Arson investigators, aided by officers form the Bureau of
Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms' arson task force, subsequently
arrested Jose Jesus Davilla, the only Proud Bird employee known
to be in the restaurant at the time the fire started.
Davilla was subsequently released for lack of other than
circumstantial evidence and the inadmissibility into evidence
of his failure to pass a lie detector test. Because
of his illegal immigrant status, Davilla was deported to
Mexico. The refrigerator and freezer were never found.
A Century of Service, by Paul Ditzel
Engine Company No.54
5730 Crenshaw Boulevard
A Full Measure of
Above and Beyond the Call of Duty
The following are excerpts from an interview with Apparatus
Operator Johnny Garcia by Captain Larry Schneider at Fire
Station 50 on May 23, 2004. At the time of the Proud Bird
Fire, Garcia was a Firefighter assigned to Task Force 64.
A U.S. Navy veteran, assigned to a Search and Rescue Unit
and survivor of two
helicopter crashes shot down in Viet Nam, Garcia was nearing his
tenth year on the LAFD and had been assigned to Fire Station 64
for most of that time.
On the night
of December 4, 1984, Firefighter Garcia was riding as
“Inside-Man” (member responsible for forcible entry work and
inside ventilation) on Truck Company 64.
“I was the inside man on Truck 64, I don’t remember
what time we got the call, it was late and it was raining. It was a cold ride all the way out the airport. John
Squire was the TFC (Task Force Commander).”
“We finally got
there and it was pretty dark. There was a really large
parking lot around the structure.
Everybody knew what they had to do. I had to go and open
the place up so the engine companies could get in.”
“I started, I
think, on the west side of the building.
It was a big building and I was opening every door that I
came across with a rotary saw. Smoke and heat started
“The rest of the
Truck crew went to the roof.
They were up there doing their cutting but they didn’t
take any long pike poles with them.
So they yelled over the parapet.
I ran back to the Truck, grabbed some long pike poles and
handed them up so they could start doing their thing.“ (The
truck companies were cutting large ventilation holes in the roof
to remove heat and smoke from the attic spaces.
They used the long, 10 and 15-foot pike poles to reach
through the ventilation holes and punch in the ceilings.
This was to vent heat and smoke out of the large rooms
“Then an engine
company wanted in through a
big door next to where an engine was parked.
They wanted to haul in hose lines.
I had to open up a pretty good size door. I took the
hinges off and pulled it open and gave them a great big access.
I was pretty tired from cutting all of that stuff
“So they went in
and I got ready to back them up.
I don’t remember what company it was. “ (Most likely
Engine Company 66.)
“I was just
ready to pull my mask over my head when a huge flash came
rolling out and drove me to the ground.
Heavy black smoke came rolling out and started burning.
It just all turned red, it came right out over the engine
that was parked there.”
“Lying there I
looked inside to see what was going on.
When it lit up I could see a bar to the right; a great
big bar area, and what looked like maybe a dance floor or
something, I don’t know.
To the left on the wall were chrome legged chairs stacked
“I could see a
hose line going in straight and then one going in and curving to
“I could see
firemen running out.”
reason, in my head, as they were running out, I counted three
guys. I don’t even know why I counted them.
I just counted three guys. Something didn’t seem right.
“So I got back
up after the flashover and went back outside.
They were screaming, because they were burned.”
“I saw Captain
Mackie (Engine 66), his gloves looked like they were on fire; he
had his hands up like this.”
“I think Isaac
Burks and Randy Beach (Firefighters assigned to Engine Company
66) broke out, I am not sure, but I think that might have been
part of the company, I am not sure, I am not even sure if they
were my company or not, at this point.”
DiGrado and Firefighter Walter Barnett of Engine Company 54 were
part of this group.)
everybody was out, something didn’t seem right, they started
talking to each other and looking around, and then one of them
yelled Pinel didn’t come out.”
“And as soon as
I heard that I got this sick feeling in my stomach.”
“I pulled my
mask out, hooked up, and Randy Beach, Isaac Burks and I went
back in on that line.”
“We got maybe
3/4 of the way in on that hose line, I tried talking to them
(Beach and Burks), asking if they could see anything or hear
anything. I could
hear a PAL device (Personal
ALarm device worn by all members that sounds off an alarm when
it senses a lack of movement such as a firefighter down) going
off. But I couldn’t tell where it was coming from.”
crawling; we were down because it was hot.”
“I turned around
to get one of the guys attention behind me and there wasn’t
anybody there. I
got scared. I thought that maybe one of them got messed up and they had
to leave right away. Or
maybe they went on another line or something and I couldn’t
see them. Maybe I screwed up, so I turned around, I stepped on a hose
line and I got out of there, cause I got scared. I
didn’t know why they left.”
“When I got out,
there they were. One
of them had a problem with his bottle so they had to split.”
“I was a little
angry; they kind of left me in there, not on purpose I don’t
think. Now my adrenaline got going that much more, I said, ‘I am
going back in there’. So,
I just lay back down on the floor, on the hose and worked my way
back in there again, and this time I made it to the nozzle.”
“It seemed like
it took forever to crawl back there because I was scared.
I think that there were at least two sections of hose
laid out there, 100 feet, maybe more, I don’t know. I
got to the nozzle and I said OK, Good, Right On, I am close to
Pinel. I tried to
listen. There was a
lot of noise, the chain saws on the roof, the radios and hose
streams pouring in. I
could even hear the sirens of the other companies coming in.
Even my own breathing into my face piece made noise.
I tried holding my breath to see if that would help.
I could only hold it for a couple of seconds because I
was so stinking tired.
It was getting hot, really hot.
As I lay there on the ground I turned my face piece to
the side to try and see if I could see anything.
I couldn’t see a thing.
I could hear, I am telling you, I could hear his PAL but
I could not figure out where it was coming from; straight ahead,
to the right, to the left, behind me. I knew I was in the right area, so I figured I have to go.
I have got to start searching; maybe I’ll bump into him.”
“I was getting ready to pull my drop-bag (a small equipment
bag with 150 feet of ¼” line that is carried by most
firefighters) off my air bottle and hook the line to the hose so
I could start a search, and all of a sudden something just
shoved me back down against the floor.
It felt like a big wind. It hit me hard and it blew me
back. It scared the
crap out of me cause I lost the hose line.
I had no idea where the hose was.
I tried to stay calm.”
“I tried to sit
up but it was to hot. I
tried scooting and when I moved my right leg I kicked something.
I reached over and felt the hose line.
I was so relieved, but I was still scared because I had
no idea which way I was facing.”
“I crawled along
the hose and ended up at the nozzle. It was getting real hot,
and then my low-air warning bell started to ring.
Now I had to get out.
I didn’t want to leave because I was close to Pinel,
but I needed air. So
I got back on the hose line and made my way out.”
“I could not
stand up; it was like an oven in there.
I think all of the walls were concrete.
I remember when coming in with the engine company, after
I opened the door, everything was concrete.
It was so hot you couldn’t get close to the walls.”
“Outside I saw
Captain Squire and an engineer.
Squire was mad at me for going in and told me to stay
don’t go back in there again,” he hollered.
They were trying to get a group of firemen to go in and
find Pinel. So when he left, I told the engineer to get
that frigging bottle off my back and give me another one.
He was a buddy of mine and said plenty good. First he had
to hose it off because it was too hot to touch.
Then he pulled it off, popped a new one in and I took off
“I knew I was
going to get it. But I thought, if I get in trouble, I get
in trouble! I’ve got to try and help.”
“I got down
again and crawled back inside.
I went hand over hand on the hose, it was really hot and
I was tired. I
couldn’t see a thing and the heat kept me almost flat on the
floor. As I crawled
forward something blew my hand off the hose.
It just hit my glove and pop.
I didn’t know what it was and it scared the heck out of
me. All kinds of
thoughts were going though my head.
I grabbed the hose and started going up again and this
time a stream of water hit me in the neck.
Now I knew what had happened, the hose had a hole in it
and water was shooting out.”
going. I got maybe
five or ten feet past that hole in the hose and I got pushed
down again, something hit me hard and rolled me over. I
remember rolling over on my back, to the right, away from the
“It was hard to
think it was so hot. All
I wanted to do was remember which way I rolled, and where the
“I tried to get
back up again, and I was stuck.
Something from behind had a hold of me.
Then I remembered that stack of doggone chairs with the
chrome legs stacked against the wall.
One of those doggone legs went through my backpack and I
was stuck. So I figured if I keep pulling on that chair
the stack is going to come down on me. I couldn’t reach
back there and get myself undone.
I was hot, really hot and I was scared.
All I could think of doing was to lay back down and kind
of scoot away from it. It
worked and I was so happy.
Again I grabbed onto that hose and I was so happy.”
“So from that
point right there I made my way up to the nozzle, when that blew
me down I was so tired, it seemed like my head was getting
squished in. I couldn’t see a thing but I could tell
that my vision was getting smaller. I could see inside my
face piece and it seemed that my peripheral vision was getting
smaller. This happened to me once before and I had passed
out. It scared me. From that point right there I could hear
that PAL again. I am really really really hot, I am going
to try again. I
started getting my drop-bag out again but now I couldn’t work
my fingers. It was
hot as heck. My jaw
was feeling weird, my tongue felt like it was swollen in my
mouth, I wanted to get cooled off again.”
“I headed out
towards the door. About
twenty feet from the door it was much cooler so I sat there for a
little bit. I had plenty of air and I said to myself I
have to do this until my air runs out. “
“I saw Captain
Squire; he took the hose that went to the right into the huge
“So I started
back inside again, I went straight ahead on the same hoseline
that I went in on earlier.
This was my fourth time. I got to the nozzle and I
thought to myself, I haven’t been burnt yet, the fire hasn’t
got to me. I lay
there and tried to be as quiet as possible and try and figure
where in heck is that sound coming from. I was trying to
hold my breath. I think the other firemen knew I was in there
because they started lobbing water inside to try and cool me
the weird feeling came upon me again.
I was looking into my face piece and my vision was going
again. It scared me. I thought to myself, lets
go outside and try and get some help. I turned around and
started making my way out.
It took forever just to turn myself around on that hose.
I couldn’t concentrate. My head felt like it had
a huge rock tied to it. It took all of my strength to keep
my head up. “
“Every leg up
and arm forward was a struggle, it was hard and it was scarring
me. I knew I didn’t have very much time because that
weird feeling was in me. The next thing I knew I was
getting drug out. All I heard were voices. I don’t
remember seeing anybody, I just remember hearing somebody
saying, “He’s here, he’s here, he’s here!” And
then I remember feeling like I was floating because they picked
me up by the B/A and ran outside with me. I was maybe
twenty feet from the door, the smoke had risen just enough so
that they could see me. They
took me outside; Captain Squire was pretty angry. His ears
were burned from going in and trying to find the kid. They
put me out in the parking lot. They put a fireman on
me so I wouldn’t go back in. Squire said this guy is not to go
back inside again.”
“I was lying out
there; water was running like a river, there was so much water
on that fire. It felt really good because it was cooling
me down. I still had my breather on. The fireman who
was with me couldn’t touch it for a little bit, until it
“I looked over
at the building, the door on the side where I had gone in.
I could see a gurney, and I could see the firemen putting a
guy on it. That must of been Pinel. And then when I
saw them doing CPR, that was it.”
“He was a really
nice guy and the bad part about it was that I knew his wife and
he had a brand new baby.”
Firefighter Johnny Garcia was awarded the
Medal of Valor for his attempts to rescue his friend,
Firefighter Benjamin Pinel.