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Ex-Employee Is Burned Trying to Set Hospital Afire, Police Say

December 24, 1987|MICHAEL CONNELLY | Times Staff Writer

A Van Nuys man was seriously burned while attempting to set fire to a convalescent hospital where he had been fired, Los Angeles police said Wednesday.

Jose Francisco Herrera was spreading gasoline around a laundry room in the Valley Palms Convalescent Hospital in Van Nuys about 11:45 p.m. Tuesday when the fuel exploded, police said.

Fire officials said an emergency sprinkler system in the hospital's ceiling prevented the blaze from spreading beyond the laundry room, and firefighters extinguished it in 15 minutes. There were no other injuries.

'Burned to a Crisp'

After the gasoline exploded, Herrera, suffering from a separated shoulder, head injuries and burns over more than 90% of his body, somehow put out his flames, hurried from the hospital and drove away. About three blocks away, two police officers noticed his erratic driving and pulled him over.

"They walked up to the car expecting to see a drunk driver," said Sgt. Charles Meter. "At this point, there had been no report yet of any fire or explosion anywhere. But what they saw was this horribly burned individual sitting there behind the wheel with his body still smoldering. The guy was just burned to a crisp.

"Needless to say, they damn near went into shock when they saw this guy," Meter said.

Damage to the room and equipment was estimated at $5,000. The fire was not large enough or near enough to patients' rooms to force an evacuation of the hospital, officials said.

Job Details Withheld

Herrera, 26, was hospitalized in extremely critical condition after the traffic stop at midnight Tuesday at the corner of Sherman Way and Woodman Avenue. After investigators unraveled what had happened, he was arrested on suspicion of possession of an explosive. Officials said that an arson investigation is continuing.

The nature of Herrera's job at the hospital and the reason for his dismissal three months ago could not be determined, and hospital officials declined to comment.

According to information from Meter and the Los Angeles Fire Department, Herrera entered the hospital, in the 13400 block of Sherman Way, but did not ignite the gasoline. "It exploded before he could ignite it," said Fire Department spokesman Gil Espinoza.

Car Was Weaving

After leaving the hospital, police said, Herrera drove west on Sherman Way before two motorcycle traffic officers, whose names were not released, saw his car weaving in the street and stopped him at Woodman Avenue.

"They didn't expect to find what they did," Meter said.

Meter said Herrera did not say anything when the officers asked him what had happened.

"He tried to," Meter said. "He moved his lips to say something but nothing came out."

Herrera was first taken to Valley Hospital Medical Center, then transferred to the burn unit of the jail ward at the Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center, where officials said he was in extremely critical condition with third-degree burns over 90% to 95% of his body.

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