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West Hollywood burning death: Some bystanders rushed to man's aid

November 04, 2013|By Samantha Schaefer and Kate Linthicum

The last thing Derek Easley expected to see on Halloween in West Hollywood was a man running through the crowd, flailing and on fire.

He came out of nowhere, fully engulfed in flames ”like a torch,” the actor, writer and producer said of the victim, later identified as Gilbert Estrada, 51.

Some bystanders thought it was a prank or a stunt, he said, but Easley, 32, quickly recognized the man was in “panic mode.” He and several others ripped Estrada’s flaming sweatshirt and jacket off his body, stomping on them to put out the fire as others continued cheering and dancing to music playing at a nearby stage.

They threw him to the ground to smother the blaze, said Easley, who took off his jacket to protect his hands and beat out the fire.

The man’s skin was visible through holes burned into his still-flaming pants, so they pulled water bottles from their backpacks to douse them, Easley said. Estrada’s hands and arms were scorched and bloody.

“So many people were drunk and partying,” he said. “People were chanting, clapping, filming and taking pictures like it was some kind of cool, funny thing and not realizing it was a guy who was suffering in a really bad condition.”

As revelers took out cellphones and crowded around, Easley said he helped form a perimeter around the man until the police arrived.

Estrada was taken to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead Friday morning, according to Lt. Cheryl MacWillie of the Los Angeles County coroner's office.

Investigators are studying a YouTube video of the incident, which shows a man engulfed in a ball of fire in the middle of a crowd of people dancing to electronic music at the carnival Thursday night. As the man flails, some bystanders can be heard cheering. 

A detective investigating the death said it appears Estrada may have accidentally started the fire himself while trying to light a cigarette.

According to Los Angeles County sheriff's Det. Richard Biddle, a bystander recounted seeing Estrada accidentally ignite the hood of his Halloween costume with a cigarette lighter. When Estrada pulled the hood off his head, the flames spread to his back and eventually engulfed his whole body, the bystander said.

Estrada went to the parade every year, Biddle said the man's family told investigators. Estrada dressed in a "ghillie suit" this year, a camouflage used to resemble foliage, which was apparently made of burlap sacks and straw, Biddle said. 

“It’s really thin and flammable,” Biddle said. “That stuff could ignite pretty fast.”

Biddle said detectives have not yet closed their investigation and are waiting for the results of an autopsy.

Estrada's family has set up a fund to raise money for his funeral and burial costs. Easley said he has been in contact with family members to let them know Estrada had help and didn’t endure the gruesome event alone.

“People were there to have a good time, not necessarily there to jump into action to help somebody out,” he said. “I want people to be able to party and have fun, but hopefully at the same time look out for their fellow man.”

The Halloween carnival draws hundreds of thousands of costumed revelers to the streets of West Hollywood every year. More than 50 performers were scheduled on six stages along the route.

Anyone with information about Estrada's death is encouraged to contact the sheriff's Homicide Bureau at (323) 890-5500. 


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Twitter: @Sam_Schaefer

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