Nothing made sense that night, so firefighter Tom Carroll really wasn't surprised when he spotted the dark Chevy Blazer, perhaps a Ford Bronco, darting past him on the right. Carroll was perched on a seat at the rear of a hook-and-ladder, steering the tail of the 52-foot-long behemoth as it raced with siren wailing through the flaming chaos of Western Avenue.
Up ahead, looters and spectators ran wildly in the intersection at Western and 31st Street. Apparatus operator Scott Miller, at the controls of 20 tons of machinery, slowed down as he tried to figure out how to get through.
Suddenly the mysterious vehicle, its headlights off, sidled alongside. What was this guy doing?
"A gun reached out," Carroll recalled, "and there was a flash."
There was a second of silence, maybe two, then Firefighter Paul Jordan's voice crackling over the radio headset.
"Scott's been hit! Scott's been hit!"
For the Los Angeles Fire Department, the riots that began before dusk on April 29 after the not guilty verdicts in the Rodney G. King beating trial made for tremors of terror, acts of courage, moments of tenderness and irony.
For firefighter Robert Marion, it was the men with the machetes--not to attack him, it turned out, but to protect him from a rock-throwing mob. For Battalion Chief Dennis Keane, it was a bullet shattering the windshield of his red battalion sedan, the shards of glass raking his face. For Capt. Carl Butler, it was the AK-47 pointed inches from his head and the man who held it, utter hatred in his eyes. The man's nickname, Butler would learn later, was "Psycho."
Their usual enemy, fire, was overwhelming. The many blazes have not been tallied yet, but officials say it is possible that Los Angeles city fire personnel battled more during the riots than in all of 1991. Worse, the firefighters often were targets for rioters using guns, bottles and rocks against any convenient symbol of authority. The police, their command in disarray, provided little protection the first night and only limited help after that. In a city hurting for heroes, firefighters put in marathon shifts, never quite sure which passing car might unleash a spray of gunfire, always wondering who was friend or foe.
Just two months shy of an expected promotion to captain, Scott Miller was the only member of official forces critically injured in the riot. The 32-year-old San Fernando Valley resident, married and the father of two, is listed in stable condition at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, recovering after 5 1/2 hours of emergency surgery to remove a bullet that slammed into his right cheek, slashed his interior carotid artery and lodged in his neck.
The blood loss caused a stroke that paralyzed Miller's left arm, perhaps permanently. Fellow firefighters who have visited him say he is in good spirits, all things considered. Miller's family has declined interviews.
Early in the riot, reports of the firefighters' ordeals emerged largely as sketchy, secondhand anecdotes. But here, based on extended interviews, are the experiences of two task forces--Capt. Francis Howard's command from Fire Station 35, and Capt. Butler's squad from Fire Station 50.
"It could have happened to anyone," Butler said, emphasizing that every crew out those nights was in danger. "It happened to be us."
In the best fire stations, veterans say, there is esprit de corps. Even in the best of times during the 48-hour shifts, the work is dangerous, sometimes deadly. Every firefighter knows his or her life depends on others. "We live together, eat together, sleep in the station together," said firefighter Bob Marion, a member of Butler's command. "We're brothers."
The commanders, the heads of these households, are counted on for sound judgment. The men at Fire Station 35 on Hillhurst Avenue have in 59-year-old Capt. Francis Howard one of the few veterans remaining who fought the flames of Watts in 1965. The gray-haired commander is still answering alarms at an age most firefighters are retired or doing desk work. When he learned of the King verdicts, "I knew we were in trouble," he said.
Capt. Carl Butler, a 24-year veteran, sensed danger as well. His crew, based on Fletcher Drive in Glassell Park, often handles hazardous material fires along the truck corridors of the Golden State Freeway and San Fernando Road. After the verdict came in and before the riots began, Butler ordered his men to strip their rigs of items that could be stolen and used by vandals. And he had them don flak jackets to guard against gunfire.
The Fire Department's top command had also started a gradual mobilization. By 6 p.m., Butler's squad had already received move-up orders and had rotated to a fire station downtown.
Howard and Butler, at stations miles apart, watched on TV as the horror unfolded at Florence and Normandie avenues, where rioters pulled truck driver Reginald Denny onto the street and beat him.
"I knew," Howard said, "we were going to have a night we'd never forget."
It all happened so fast. Conflagrations that normally drew 10 companies were handled by one. Hostile crowds taunted firefighters, pelting their trucks and their bodies with rocks and bottles. Gunfire rattled in the night.
Soon, Butler's task force--a hook-and-ladder company and engine company, units that normally work as a team--parted ways to fight fires. Capt. Vance Boos' crew battled a blaze at a strip mall at Main and 54th that threatened an apartment building. Butler's hook-and-ladder company found a fire at a department store at Vermont and Vernon, but the menace of the crowd and gunfire prompted them to move on to another blaze. When they returned later, Butler thought it was now safe to fight the fire. They set up lines to try to keep the blaze from spreading to an adjacent ABC Market and endangering the looters there.
Here, the rioters were mostly black. Butler's six-man crew comprised three whites, two Latinos and one black. Danger didn't seem to discriminate. Firefighter Alonzo Williams, who is black, was attaching a hose to a hydrant when he heard three bullets whistle over his head.
Suddenly, four men with weapons confronted the firefighters. Two AK-47s, a shotgun and a pistol were trained on Butler's crew. Some of the men, at least, had arrived in an old Cadillac.
Firefighter Rick Reyes broadcast a message describing their situation over his "handi-talkie" radio. One man with a gun told him to quit. Reyes did as he was told.
The leader targeted Butler, sticking the barrel in his face. "It was obvious just to look at him this was his night . . . It just manifested itself in his eyes," Butler said. "He wouldn't just stand there and point it at me. He would go around me and stick it in behind my head . . . essentially threatening to kill me and my crew."
The gunman talked crazily, a rage of epithets and threats. Butler, a tall, broad-shouldered man with a reputation for aggressive leadership, banished a notion of trying to disarm the gunman. A crowd had gathered--a crowd that seemed to be rooting for the bad guys.
Butler thought of giving the man something--a trophy. Maybe he would go away, maybe he would not feel the need to kill. Butler offered the man his radio--a $3,000 piece of electronics. The man took it. Then, at gunpoint, Butler and three of his men ran for safety across the parking lot, leaving the fire and their trucks behind.
"As we were running away from the rigs, the people were sitting around, cheering these guys on. 'Kill 'em! Shoot 'em!,' " apparatus operator Dennis Waite recalled. "And if they weren't yelling that, they were laughing. It was a big joke."
At Vermont two cars revved their engines, threatening to run down Reyes. He escaped.
The four men found refuge a short distance down Vernon. Bertila Pozo and her daughters, teen-aged Factima and 11-year-old Victian, took the terrified firefighters into their home as the riot raged outside. Victian served them glasses of water.
Now Butler had another problem. Firefighter Williams and Engineer Kelly Kilmartin were missing.
Thirteen blocks north and fourteen blocks west, Capt. Howard's crew had it worse. The drive-by shooter rolled up behind the hook-and-ladder's cab and opened fire.
Howard managed a quick glimpse at the attacker's car. Then, alerted by Jordan's cry, he looked to his left and saw Miller sagging toward the steering wheel, held up only by a seat belt, his chin resting on his chest.
Miller, approaching the intersection, had slowed the huge truck from about 35 m.p.h. to about 15 m.p.h. Now it was drifting toward some cars along the curb. Howard quickly reached over and applied an air brake on the steering column, bringing the truck to a stop.
Blood gushed from Miller's cheek. Jordan yelled for help. Carroll, who is also trained as a paramedic, leaped from his post and ran to Miller's aid. Firefighter Mike Beltran and engineer Michael Lehr sprinted up from the pump engine to help out.
They unhooked Miller's seat belt, removed his helmet and headset. When they opened the door, Jordan recalled, "Scott just fell into our arms."
They made a quick decision: The ladder truck would have to serve as an ambulance.
Miller was strapped into the seat where Jordan had been. Carroll held Miller's head in his hands, both to apply direct pressure to the wound and to ensure that Miller would be able to breathe. To do this Carroll had to stretch himself awkwardly over the diamond-plate metal cover of the engine mount, hooking his feet under the driver's seat to maintain balance.
Carroll had treated plenty of gunshot wounds before. "But never with a friend," he said. "I never, ever, experienced anything like this."
"I thought, we gotta hurry, or they're going to come back and finish us all off," Jordan said. "I've never been so scared in my life."
Alonzo Williams frightened for his life, wondered where Capt. Butler and the rest of the crew had gone. Williams had ended up alone, farther down Vernon from where his comrades had taken shelter in the Pozo home. He called on his radio three times. Three times there was no answer.
Over the crowded frequencies, the news from Vermont and Vernon was frightening. Capt. Boos and the other men from Fire Station 50 heard the first reports of the attack. Companies racing past to other blazes saw the ladder truck but no sign of the crew.
Inside the Pozo house, Butler's men decided they had little choice but to step outside to make themselves visible to attract Williams and Kilmartin. Waite, Reyes and firefighter Louis Navarro stepped back into the battle zone, waving their arms and using their radios. That made them easy targets.
Across Vermont, they spotted Kilmartin, still at the rig; he had crouched inside a truck while the others fled the gunmen. He saw Waite and sprinted to join them.
Finally, Williams turned up. The six firemen, reunited, took cover in the Pozo home. They radioed their location and asked for police help.
This too made the firefighters nervous; after all, the bad guys had one of their radios.
About a mile away, Capt. Howard had to decide how to keep Scott Miller alive.
"As soon as I saw the blood, I was concerned whether he was going to make it," Howard said.
Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, the crew decided, offered the best hope. It had a full trauma center. It was not very close, but it was their best chance.
Jordan maneuvered the truck north on Western, dodging cars and people, racing past flaming stores and frenzied looters. They roared onto the Santa Monica Freeway and headed west, snaking through traffic. Then it was off the freeway toward the hospital. Jordan slowed at intersections but never stopped, trusting that motorists would heed the siren.
Miller was conscious but very weak. He moved Carroll's hand to a more comfortable position on his jaw. "Can you breath all right?" Carroll asked. He nodded his head slightly.
They radioed ahead to the hospital. The firetruck was too large for the emergency room driveway, so an ambulance team waited outside with a gurney.
For Butler and his men, it seemed like a long time before a police Special Weapons and Tactics team gingerly approached the Pozo house, concerned that the crew was being held hostage. Liberated by the SWAT team, and now with police protection, the crew from Fire Station 50 put out the fire. The men returned to their station at sunrise.
Across town, Howard's men, distraught over their wounded friend, waited for two hours at Cedars-Sinai. After doctors assured them that Miller would survive, they halfheartedly returned to the riot. "We pretty much lost interest in being shot at," as one put it. Even so, they also fought fires until dawn.
A few days later, Butler's radio was recovered. Los Angeles police found it in a car driven by 21-year-old Trynon Lee Jefferson, described as a member of the Eight-Trey Gangster Crips. Police say Jefferson had ambushed a police car; three officers received minor wounds from ricocheting bullet fragments. Within about a minute of that attack police found Jefferson and opened fire. A bullet struck Jefferson in the head, leaving him in critical condition.
Butler has identified Jefferson, by photograph, as the man who took his radio.
Howard and his men, meanwhile, have visited Miller frequently. His career as a firefighter is thought to be over. Talking is difficult. For a time he communicated through notes.
One time Howard asked him what he remembered about that night.
"Everything," Miller wrote.