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Riordan Visits Firefighters in Burn Center : Victims: Mayor thanks three men hurt fighting Santa Susana Pass blaze.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

The arms he normally uses to wield fire hoses and carry children to safety were burned and swathed in gauze, but Cleveland Tipton still had the strength to raise one of them Thursday to shake the hand of his commander-in-chief.

“Thanks for putting your life on the line,” Mayor Richard Riordan told the injured firefighter at his bedside in Sherman Oaks Hospital Burn Center.

Riordan fought back tears as Tipton said he was eager to get back to the lines subduing the fires that ravaged Southern California.

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“I was sitting here watching the news, watching a lot of people losing their homes, and I feel like I should be out there,” Tipton told Riordan, tears filling his eyes--the only features visible besides his mouth.

It was an emotional encounter Thursday morning for Tipton and three fellow Los Angeles city firefighters who were severely burned while combatting a stubborn blaze in Santa Susana Pass. The crew of Engine 98 became the worst casualties of two days of fiery battle just before daylight Wednesday, when a wall of flames punched through the cab of the firetruck in which they had desperately sought refuge.

All four men, who suffered second- and third-degree burns over up to 40% of their bodies, face weeks of hospitalization for surgery and skin grafts that begin today, hospital officials said.

Still in critical condition Thursday were Capt. Jan Bernard, 45, and Senior Firefighter Russell Nakamura, 40. Engineer Tipton, 45, remained in serious condition, and the condition of novice Firefighter Gary Carpenter, 35, was upgraded from critical to serious.

Riordan, after visiting all but Nakamura, whose room was kept closed and darkened to prevent harm to his damaged eyes, said the city owed a “great debt of gratitude” to the injured men.

“I’m proud to . . . be the mayor over these young men who put their lives on the line and did such a great job,” he said on the patio of the burn center, one of the nation’s most eminent.

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“I was really thrilled at the spirit of the men I saw. They wanted to get back out there and do the job.”

The forced inactivity was difficult for Tipton, a 19-year Fire Department veteran from Quartz Hill, who lay on his bed, arms and head bandaged, waiting for one of his two daily sessions in the hyperbaric chamber, whose pure oxygen helps tissues heal. He suffered deep burns over 12% of his body.

His experience Wednesday morning was terrifying, but “it was the thought of the grandkids that kept me going,” said Tipton, who has four adult children and six grandchildren. “We were lucky.”

Briefly, he and Carpenter, the team’s youngest member, described how an abrupt shift in wind direction effectively trapped the crew in a ring of fire, which they tried to escape by scrambling inside their vehicle.

“Once we were in there, we were really kind of suffocating from all the heat and smoke,” Carpenter recounted. The windows imploded from the heat--which flashed over 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit--and “fire got in the cab,” he said from his hospital bed, a television on overhead and a humidifier spouting moist air for his seared lungs.

Although Carpenter’s condition was upgraded Thursday, doctors said the Downey resident may have suffered more damage from smoke inhalation than originally feared. Carpenter’s face, like that of his colleagues, was heavily bandaged and only partly visible. Carpenter’s girlfriend, Helen Wilson of Long Beach, said he was “coughing up smoke and (smoky) phlegm” the evening before.

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Relatives of Bernard, who lives in North Hills, and Nakamura, of Valencia, also came to the hospital Thursday to boost the morale of the two men--the most severely injured of the crew.

Burns covered 35% of Nakamura’s body, including his ears and face, which lost protection when his hood was knocked free by the wave of flames, according to burn unit Director Dr. Richard Grossman.

Bernard’s helmet and hood shielded his head, but the crew chief suffered burns over 40% of his body, especially on his face and the back of his thighs, which apparently were not insulated by the heavy “turnout” coat that protected much of his upper body. Bernard’s wool pants remained intact during the incident, Grossman said, “but there was so much heat that it generated right through the wool.”

After slipping in to see her uncle, Bernard’s niece, Laurie Possell of Northridge, said the part-time Little League coach and full-time firefighter was heavily bandaged, and his eyes were swollen. During her visit, he showed her the hand-held hospital device that released painkillers into his system with the press of a button.

“He’s in a lot of pain,” said Possell, 22, who brought her 8-month-old son, Kyle, to see his injured great-uncle. But “he seemed in really good spirits.”

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