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Battling Back From Tragedy : Severely Injured in Altadena Blaze, Man Is Determined to Return to Firefighting

July 28, 1994|TALLY GOLDSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Gabriel Larios has gone through 20 surgeries to repair his badly burned body, and must go through 20 more.

The way he looks at it, he's halfway toward getting back to his firefighting job, a career he has every intention of pursuing even though it caused his injuries.

"This was a once-in-a-lifetime thing," he said, smiling stiffly beneath the flexible mask he wears to protect his scarred face. "I'll never have to worry about it happening again." As part of Los Angeles County's Air Attack Crew based in La Canada Flintridge, Larios and his crew mates battled wildfires by using chain saws and shovels to clear brush in the fire's path.

Nearly a year ago, Larios and seven others made the mistake of descending into a ravine in Altadena where they could not see the approaching fire.

"The guys at the top of the mountain were yelling at us to get out, but the ground was too soft for me to get a grip," said Larios, a strapping man with broad shoulders and glowing brown eyes.

"It only took about 10 to 15 seconds before I was surrounded by the fire."

Larios' fire-retardant clothing could not protect him from the intense heat. He suffered third-degree burns on 45% of his body, including his arms, back and face. Two of his crew mates, Arthur Ruezga, 33, and Christopher Herman, 25, were killed in the fire.

"I don't know how I got out. My adrenaline was pumping and my brain kicked into survival mode," he said. "A lot of things were racing through my mind, but my main goal was to get to safety."

Since that time, Larios' mind has been fixed on getting back to his job and on enjoying the baby daughter born four months after the fire.

"A lot of people say you're supposed to have depression and nightmares, but I'm a strong-willed person," said Larios, 21. "They sent a team of social workers and psychologists, but I wasn't interested."

*

For a while, the burned tendons in Larios' hands kept his fingers curled, but the first of two operations and physical therapy allowed him a steady, if not firm, handshake.

Most recently, Larios had skin grafted from his leg to help reconstruct the space between his nose and mouth. Over the next five years and another 20 expected operations, he will also have his nose, ears and lips reconstructed, said Michel Brones, Larios' doctor and a specialist in corrective surgery for burn patients.

The pain in Larios' face is usually minimal, but he wears a mask to keep the scar tissue from thickening and to protect his face from the sun.

The face mask, attached by a tan strap around his head, elicits a lot of attention from strangers and from Acelia, Larios' 7-month-old daughter, who likes to tap and tug at it.

Larios said he is used to being stared at in public, but John P. Harris, a fire captain at La Canada Flintridge, said he thinks Larios is far more tired of it than he is willing to admit. "After a while, you just want to be left alone," Harris said. "Who could blame him?"

Larios has rejected emotional therapy, but all of his colleagues at the La Canada Flintridge fire station have taken advantage of some type of therapy to see them through, Harris said.

"The amount of trauma from something like this cannot be measured," he said.

When firefighters watched a TV show about firefighters killed recently in Colorado, many started to cry, Harris said. "None of us will ever be the same again."

*

Larios' wife, Nesell, 21, says she had a bad feeling the day of the fire. "Call it intuition," she said. "But I spent all day on the phone trying to find out if Gab was OK."

Larios also had a bad feeling about descending into the ravine that day, but he is quick to add that it was a group decision and no one is to blame.

"Whenever we have a fatality or a serious burn, we know mistakes were made," Harris said. "But some of the guys have a guilt complex about what happened, and that's not right."

Larios cannot remember a time when he did not want to be a firefighter. As a child, he used to play at the firehouse across from the police station where his father was an officer.

Larios' father, Hector, also had wanted to be a firefighter but did not qualify because of his colorblindness.

"It's just fun to see people's faces after you've helped them," Larios said. "You get a lot of gratitude from society."

His fellow firefighters say Larios is a lighthearted man who tended to see the cheery side of a situation.

"He was the guy at camp who would always cheer you up if you were having a bad day," said crew mate Shawn Ohara, 20, who went through training with Larios in 1991.

Crew mate Christopher Barth, 27, who was burned on 20% of his body in the Altadena fire, is back on limited duty.

But Brones said Larios, who receives workers compensation, should not return in any capacity for at least another year.

*

"He's one of the most severe burn cases I've seen," Brones said. "But he's a healthy individual with a positive outlook and a lot of determination."

After the accident, several firefighters considered quitting or transferring to a different department.

"Some of them are very, very jittery out there," Harris said.

Not him, Larios says. "If I could go back tomorrow, I would," he said.

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