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Eight Saved From Flames : Police Turn Helicopter Into Flying Fire Alarm

February 26, 1988|FREDERICK M. MUIR | Times Staff Writer

For Los Angeles Police Officers Lewis Peake and Mike Lien it was another routine patrol.

For them, "routine" means cruising the skies of the city at 800 feet in their Bell Jet Ranger helicopter looking for the unusual. But their overnight shift had been relatively quiet; nothing to brag about. No medals to be earned this time.

So after chasing a suspected car thief up Vermont Avenue and into the hands of the awaiting ground patrol, the two headed their "bird" for the LAPD helipad atop the Piper Technical Building as their shift came to an end before dawn Thursday.

Spotted a Glow

And that's when they spotted the faint orange glow near MacArthur Park and headed for what would turn out to be a key role in saving eight lives.

Lien said he expected to see the Fire Department or police ground units already at the aging two-story Victorian house ablaze in the 200 block of South Union Avenue.

"But there was no activity," Lien said. "We did a couple of orbits and then dropped down to about 300 feet and started making all the noise we could" in an attempt to awaken the residents and neighbors, said Peake, who piloted the aircraft.

Radioed Fire Department

The officers turned on their siren, directed their 30-million candlepower searchlight on the home and "hoped the popping of the blades" would help alert residents, that their roof and attic were already ablaze and the fire was spreading fast, Peake said.

They had already radioed for the Fire Department and other police units to respond.

But before firefighters and other police units could arrive, neighbors began responding and pulled some of the eight residents out of the home.

Police officers woke the remaining residents and escorted them out as the flames raced through the bottom floor, destroying virtually everything the two families owned.

"Normally we don't like to fly below 500 feet," Lien said. At that altitude, he explained, there is very little reaction time between an engine failure and the ground. "But in this case we had to get lower to get the people's attention."

Used to Copter Noise

In the neighborhoods surrounding MacArthur Park, residents get used to the nightly flutter and pop of a helicopter's blades as the LAPD's air support division aids in the pursuit of stolen cars, shooting suspects and other dangerous calls.

So it was not surprising that Gilbert Williams, his fiancee Jackie Hill and her four children and Jacqueline Martinez and her daughter never did hear the blast of the siren or the whir of the chopper.

"We didn't know it was burning," Hill said. "There was a guy banging on the door and police in the hallway saying, 'Get out!' "

It took five fire companies half an hour to control the blaze.

"We're not heroes," Lien said. "We're just doing our job.

"But if we are heroes," he said waving his arm around the locker room at the air support center, "then all these guys are heroes."

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