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UNDERSTANDING THE RIOTS / PART 3 : WITNESS TO RAGE : MOMENTS OF TERROR : 'They're . . . they're shooting at us!'

May 13, 1992|Francis D. Howard, a Los Angeles Fire Department captain, works out of Station No. 35 in Los Feliz. He was on the truck with firefighter Scott Miller when Miller was shot. Howard joined the fire department in 1963 and fought fires during the Watts riots. He lives in Valencia.

I got to the station about 5, and the TV was on in the kitchen. We saw the first truck driver being beaten and decided we would formulate a game plan. We decided early on that if a fire could not be put out without going inside the structure, we were going to write off the building.

Here's the reason: We have pumping apparatus that usually leaves one man at a hydrant and one man at another pump. We were not going to jeopardize those two individuals.

During the Watts riot, a guy at a pump felt a gun barrel next to his neck and, as he turned to see what it was, the guy pulled the trigger and blew the collar of his coat out of the way. We weren't going to chance that.

We weren't going to split our forces and send somebody by himself around in back. This is self-protection, OK. The other thing is, the department realized early on that this was not going to be a good night. There are certain things that we do, such as using the apparatus to protect the firemen. We park the apparatus in such a way that it's more difficult for them to shoot at us or try to run us over because they've got to hit big red first.

At 9, we made our first run to 40th and Hoover, but they really didn't need us. We contacted our dispatch center and told them that we'd been released. But because of the heavy traffic on the radio, we were unable to get through. So we saw a very large luma (what we call smoke and fire) and we headed toward that direction, which happened to be off of Western.

Somewhere around 32nd and Western, a car started to pass us on the right side. We get real uneasy when people are trying to pass when we're responding to a fire. We make big sweeping turns and people aren't really aware of which way we're going to turn if they're alongside of us. So if the pump engineer--the guy in the the truck following us--sees something like that happening, he gets on the intercom and tells us that we have a person on either side of us, one side or the other. Then the people on aboard the truck will look and they'll say: "Scott, (that's our driver's name), we have a guy coming up on the left side. We have a guy on the right side."

Well, in this case, the tiller man, the guy that drives the back of the truck, simply turned the steering wheel back there, and moved the whole back of the truck over, cutting off the guy who was was coming up on the right. So this individual backed off.

And now we're approaching 31st and Western. I never saw the car. My job at this point is to be an observer for the driver and I'm looking ahead. There are people on the right corner and on the left corner. I didn't want to take any chances, because things are going on down there. So, I tell Scott, "We've people on the corner. It doesn't look good." At about that time, I heard a shot. I never saw the car but the guy who was tillering said the car pulled up alongside with the lights out. He saw an arm come out the window and fire. And he said, "They're . . . they're shooting at us!"

Then the person who sits directly behind the driver turned and said, "Captain, he hit Scott." Scott fell forward. It was like somebody sleeping, with his chin on his chest. My only thought was, "Is he dead? Are we going to be able to save him?"

Either his foot slipped off of the accelerator or he had put it on the brake. We were slowing. I reached over and pulled the hand brake on the steering column. We came to a halt. Then the guys got off the apparatus--everybody except me--and took Scott and put him on the seat behind the driver. We used a safety belt to hold him in. The paramedic assigned to our company lay on the cover over the the compartment and stabilized Scott's head.

All I saw was a lot of blood. When he slumped forward his turnup coat, which is kind of bulky, covered the cut. But I could see blood everywhere, and I thought we'd lost him. But the paramedic says, "He's still alive."

He'd been shot in the right cheek. The bullet eventually ended up in his neck. There was no exit wound.

I said, "Let's get out of this area." We'd already called for help. We told them we had a fireman shot, and that we needed help. They said, "OK, we'll send you somebody." But as soon as they said that, I said, "Hey, we can't be here. Suppose that guy decides he wants to come back and take a shot at us? We need to get out of here."

I said, "Where's the nearest hospital?" And the paramedic turned and said, "we're a tossup between Brotman and Cedars-Sinai. Cedars-Sinai is a trauma center and a good one. So that was our decision.

We elected not to wait for a rescue ambulance, because he was bleeding very heavily and the only means that we had of stopping bleeding was direct pressure.

I kept thinking about what had happened. We don't go out there and arrest people. We don't knock people on the head or do anything. We're there to help people. So why were they shooting at us?

It took about five to six minutes to get to Cedars. I thought about Scott all the way there.

There was heavy bleeding. I thought of the possibility of spinal cord injury, of a severed carotid artery. Could the bullet be in the brain? I hadn't seen where the shot hit him. We wanted to get him there as quickly as possible. We wanted to do whatever we could to control his bleeding and keep him alive.

When we got him to Cedars, we stayed around for a couple of reasons: One is that usually the PD comes in to make a report about a thing like that, which they didn't. The other thing is our department always made sure that we tell the family before it ever hits the airwaves. So we stayed around wanting to talk to his wife.

We went back the next morning to see him, after we got relieved. He was in the same kind of condition, except he was awake and I was able to just say a few words. He kind of nodded. So, I knew he knew I was there.

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