The scene of the massive apartment tower fire stretching over a city block from along the 110 Freeway in downtown Los Angeles was spectacular, not unlike the opening credits of the burning jungle canopy in “Apocalypse Now.”
It was so arresting that scores of gawking drivers pulled to the shoulder of the freeway early Monday to snap photos and videos of the monster blaze. Some passed so close to the flames that the heat was felt through car doors and windows.
Kin Isamov, 28, of Silverlake, was headed downtown on the 110 to pick up his girlfriend at an art studio early Monday when he saw that at least half a dozen cars had queued up on the shoulder.
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Isamov himself stopped momentarily on the side of the road, threw his blinkers on and got out of his Mazda 6 to take it all in. The California Highway Patrol was arriving on the other side of the 101, telling people to “keep moving,” he said. At that moment, the southbound 110 had not been closed.
“We didn’t have a lot of deliberation, we just hopped in the car and drove,” Isamov said.
Isamov and his friend were on the 110 Freeway for all of about five minutes, and passed close to the fire for only about 20 seconds. During that time, only about two or three other cars were on the road, Isamov said. So he drove “really, really fast,” as he filmed on his phone and his awestruck friend screamed expletives. [Warning: Graphic language about 8 seconds into the video.]
“You could feel the fire. You drive through it, and you kind of imagine what Armageddon would feel like,” Isamov said. “You feel like any second the fire is going to get in the car, burn you… It’s going to be like the apocalypse.”
“It was so mesmerizing,” he added.
Isamov said that he was hoping to grab his girlfriend quickly enough to take another pass though the fiery freeway. But by the time he got back to the 110 on-ramps, all the exits had been sealed off by authorities, he said. He took side streets home.
“As I was going through it, I realized the whole apartment complex was set ablaze,” he said. “That was mind-boggling. The whole thing was on fire, evenly.”
Cristobal Gutierrez, 18, was driving home to Bell after a night of showing his 9-year-old brother, Jose, who was half asleep in the back of the car, around Hollywood.
FULL COVERAGE: Downtown L.A. fire
But around 1:40 a.m. Gutierrez let out a holler. As he drove down the 101 Freeway, he could see smoke rising from what he thought was a factory. His brother jolted awake, and as they got closer, they saw that what they thought was a factory was in fact an unfinished apartment building. Soon the smoke would give way to full flames.
“My brother’s 9 and had never seen a fire before. He was like ‘cool, look at that big fire!’ My mindset was ‘Oh crap, I need to get out of here as quickly as possible.’ You don’t know how it can escalate,” Gutierrez said. “It looked like a little 9/11 scene. Really impressive. “
Gutierrez pulled off the shoulder and slowed down for less than a minute so he could shoot some photos and video on his phone. Outside, he said the air smelled like burned wood, and he could feel the heat of the fire through the car.
When the brothers got home after 2 a.m., Jose immediately roused his parents.
“We just passed a huge fire,” he told them, then borrowed Cristobal's phone to show them.
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