Los Angeles Fire Department
Historical Archive

In Memory of
Firefighter II Benjamin Pinel
Engine Company 54
A Platoon
Appointed March 13, 1983
Died December 4,1984
Died of smoke inhalation at arson fire.
Proud Bird Restaurant
11022 S. Aviation Boulevard
near LAX

* * * * * * * * * *

Firefighter Michael Pinel (left) with his brother
Benjamin at his Drill Tower graduation in 1983.

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, authorities said.
  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 Bird.
    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 fire.
   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 with them.
   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 Devotion:               
               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 coming out.”
  “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 below.)
  “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 open.”
“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 up.” 
  “I could see a hose line going in straight and then one going in and curving to the right.”    
  “I could see firemen running out.”
  “For some 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.”  
(Captain Jim DiGrado and Firefighter Walter Barnett of Engine Company 54 were part of this group.)
  “So after 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.”
“We were 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 outside.  “You 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 again.”
  “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.”

“I kept 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 hose.”
  “It was hard to think it was so hot.  All I wanted to do was remember which way I rolled, and where the hose was.”
  “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 bar area.”
  “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 off.”
  “That’s when 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 cooled off.”
  “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.

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