Shocked awake by the boom of an explosion, the whoosh of giant flames and the rattle of airborne embers on her window, Dana Maltz realized that it was too light for half-past three in the morning at the dark end of December.
Peeking down through the blackout curtains, she saw that the wooden frame of the uncompleted Devonhill condos next door was consumed in flame, roaring up at her like the world's biggest bonfire.
"You didn't see flames like I thought flames would look like," Maltz said. "It was just a solid yellow-orange."
What she saw one year ago today from her bedroom window halfway up the Wilshire Terrace, a high-rise co-op on the eastern edge of Westwood, was the start of the worst building fire in the 104-year history of the Los Angeles Fire Department.
A watchman at the five-story construction site called in an alarm at 3:37, but a warm, 8- to 10-m.p.h. wind from the northeast was already fanning the original arson blaze and blowing it against the eastern wall of the Wilshire Terrace, a 14-story luxury building with 106 residents home at the time of the fire.
Caught underneath the large terraces that cover the side of the structure, the flames flashed into the core of the building through air-conditioning ducts and were belching from the windows of apartments on 12 of the 14 floors when firefighters arrived five minutes after the first alarm.
The wind hurled burning timbers to the roof of the Devonshire, an 18-unit apartment house on the east side of Devon Avenue, to a construction site on the south side of Wilshire Boulevard and to apartment houses on the next block.
"I remember saying that there had to be an airplane crash, because of the amount of fire all around," said Fire Capt. Louis Chatin, commander of one of the first companies to arrive on the scene.
With the fickleness of airborne currents, the wind flung firebrands to the wood-shingle roofs of houses in a block-wide swath that stretched for a mile and a half.
"Fortunately, we were not at home. Had we been, the man across the street said we'd have never gotten out of there," said Luana Lagerson, whose house on Holmby Drive was a total loss.
The neighbor, who was wetting down his own roof with a garden hose, watched a ball of fire come down from the sky and come to rest in a rain gutter on Lagerson's house.
"The roof was so dry that the whole thing started on fire in 10 seconds, and then the gas line exploded," Lagerson said.
The Lagersons, who had lived in the house for 40 years, managed to salvage a scorched family Bible but little else, said their son, Doug.
In all, there were 33 separate fires--28 buildings and five trees; so many that dispatchers found it hard to keep track of them all, said Deputy Fire Chief Donald F. Anthony, who was the commander at the scene.
In fact, he said, the department ended up assigning two-thirds of its resources to the high-rise, frustrating homeowners who reported their roofs on fire only to be told that there was no one available.
But the decision to concentrate on the high-rise still seems correct, Anthony said.
"Clearly, the potential for the highest life loss and greatest damage was the Wilshire Terrace," he said.
Four hundred and six firefighters and 58 command and supporting officers were sent to the scene from stations as far away as San Pedro, along with 69 fire engines, six rescue ambulances and five helicopters.
The heat from the flames at the Devonshire was so intense that a firetruck had to be pulled back when its side panels started burning.
Inside the Wilshire Terrace, where security guards called apartments and knocked on doors to roust the largely elderly residents, "it was real dark, real hot, real smoky and real difficult to get to the fire," Chatin said.
There were 87 units in the building, many of them enlarged by tearing down walls to combine two original apartments, and customized with extra-heavy doors that the firefighters found hard to chop through.
The air was so hot that their leather helmet shields melted, and "aluminum (which melts at 1,150 degrees) was pouring everywhere," Chatin said.
Even the water from the fire hoses posed a danger, heated to near-boiling temperatures and flooding the corridors of the high-rise because the concrete floors and ceilings gave it nowhere to go.
Already loaded down with 32-pound breathing apparatuses, the firefighters lugged 600 five-pound air cylinders up the stairs, each good for 20 to 30 minutes inside the inferno.
Snaking their hoses up the stairwells, they made dogged progress, but dawn breezes kicked up the blaze again. The fire was finally declared out at 7:43 a.m. A third of the luxury units had been destroyed, another third suffered serious damage, and the rest had smoke damage.
"We had a bronze statue that was completely melted," said Chuck Maltz, Dana's husband and president of the building's board of directors. He said his Army dog tags survived, however.