Pleasant Ritual of Flaming Cocktails Became Calamity

Times Staff Writer

The Los Feliz Inn on Hillhurst Avenue was Melanie and Scott Ross's favorite restaurant. "The food, the service, the atmosphere--everything is elegant," he recalled.

To celebrate special occasions, they would drive from their Burbank home to the restaurant on the other side of Griffith Park, frequently ending their dinner with a Cafe Trinidad, the flaming liqueur and rum drink that was prepared at their table with a theatrical flourish. "It always seemed safe," Scott Ross said. "We never had any problem in the past."

So, on Jan. 23, after she had been housebound for two weeks nursing her two children who had the flu, Melanie Ross, 24, jumped at the chance to attend a small birthday party for a friend at the Los Feliz Inn. "She was thrilled to death to have a ladies' night on the town," her husband said.

The four women ordered Cafe Trinidads and were enjoying watching the waiter go through the elaborate ritual of preparation on a cart next to their table: heating glasses, peeling oranges in a single, long curling strip, igniting ladles of rum.

Mistake Was Made

But then, according to an investigator for the Los Angeles Fire Department, the waiter apparently made a mistake. The flame in the ladle was supposed to have been extinguished before the next serving of 151-proof rum was poured into it. It was not, said Raymond Olsen, commander of the Fire Prevention Bureau's public safety division.

As the waiter poured the rum out of the bottle on his cart, vapors ignited, creating "a fireball in the bottle," which then exploded like a flame thrower directly toward Melanie Ross, said Olsen, who investigated the incident. "It was like a blowtorch," he said. "There are no indications that it even hit the tablecloth."

Donald McDavid and his friend, Trish Sullivan, were sitting at a nearby table when the fire exploded. "There was a boom and a flash (of) blue fire and the one woman (Melanie Ross) got up and starting running toward the back of the restaurant. She was engulfed in blue flames from the waist up," McDavid recalled.

Ross either fell or was pushed down and then McDavid and some busboys rolled her in tablecloths to smother the flames, said McDavid, who lives in Burbank. Sullivan, a former nurse, helped pack Ross in ice until the paramedics arrived.

Ross suffered second- and third-degree burns over 30% of her body--including her face, neck, chest, arms and upper abdomen. One of her friends, Barbara Leetch, 50, of Van Nuys, was burned on the arm, treated at a hospital and released that night.

Olsen said the Fire Department will not recommend that the city press charges against the restaurant even though its one-year permit to serve flaming cocktails had expired in March, 1981. As in the case of most first-time violations, the restaurant at 2138 Hillhurst Ave. in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles was given a warning and told not to serve those drinks anymore, he said.

Skin-Graft Surgery

Ross remained this week in the Michael Jackson Burn Center at Brotman Memorial Hospital in Culver City. She underwent skin-graft surgery on her chest and both arms last weekend and is "recovering well," according to her doctor, Stanley Frileck, director of the burn center.

Frileck said Ross probably will be able to go home in about a week but that she will need additional surgery. Her face, however, is healing and does not require surgery, Frileck said.

Her spirits, the doctor said, "are prone to swings. It is, of course, a difficult time."

"Her mental attitude has been fairly good," her husband added. "But obviously under these conditions, she's going to have bad days."

Scott Ross, a 48-year-old sales representative for a Los Angeles paper board company, is trying to pull his family's life back together. "We have a long haul," he said of his wife's recovery.

After the accident, Scott Ross did not work for a week. He has since returned to work, but he now leaves early every afternoon to visit his wife.

He has had to hire domestic help to take care of their two daughters, who are 8 months and 3 1/2. The older child knows that her mother was in some sort of accident, but has not been allowed to visit her at the hospital because she is too young to comprehend what really happened, he said.

Ross is preparing for his wife's return home, including finding out about nursing care.

He also has hired a lawyer, Harold Sullivan, to prepare a damage suit against the Los Feliz Inn. Sullivan, who has handled many burn cases, said the restaurant's insurance company wants to settle the matter out of court.

But, Sullivan said, he intends to file a lawsuit soon on behalf of the Ross family "for at least a million dollars" on the grounds that the waiter was improperly trained and the restaurant did not have a permit to serve the drinks.

'Set an Example'

"We want to try to set an example so that this didn't happen in vain," Sullivan said. "We want to make sure proper precautions are taken."

The Los Feliz Inn's management has refused to discuss the incident with The Times. Fire officials would not identify the waiter. Olsen, however, said the man claims not to remember much about the mishap. "He is emotionally upset about it," Olsen said. "He never had a problem with those drinks before."

In his 20 years with the department, Olsen said he had heard of only one other such mishap involving a flaming drink. Actor Dan Haggerty, who starred in the "Grizzly Adams" TV series, was severely burned on his arms, neck, and face when a flaming drink set his beard on fire at the The Red Onion Restaurant in Woodland Hills in November, 1977. Investigators at the time said Haggerty either leaned into the flames or the drink was accidently spilled on him.

Frileck said that many of his patients were injured in household accidents, but it is very rare for any customer to be badly burned at a restaurant. "The entire practice of serving flaming cocktails shouldn't be indicted," said Frileck, who said he has seen Cafe Trinidads prepared at the Los Feliz Inn but never had one.

For McDavid, witnessing the accident was so traumatic that he said he would never again order any drink or dish that involves an open flame. "I can't even stand seeing a candle on a table now," said McDavid, adding with some irony that he had gone to the Los Feliz Inn especially to have a Cafe Trinidad and was annoyed that the waiter was taking so long preparing drinks for the birthday party group. McDavid declined to discuss how he thinks the accident happened because he expects to be called as a witness in the suit against the restaurant.

During a recent interview, Ross spoke of his wife's accident calmly and without apparent rancor against the restaurant. In fact, he said, not only would he not try to dissuade friends from eating there, he would consider going there again.

"My wife would have to decide that," he said. "It was an unfortunate accident, but that doesn't change my feelings about the place. It's still an elegant restaurant. I just don't know if we would ever order another flaming cocktail."

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