The scar on his neck will never go away. Nor will the memories of that spring evening 17 years ago as South Los Angeles exploded into rioting.
Scott Miller, an apparatus operator with the Los Angeles Fire Department, maneuvered his hook-and-ladder truck along Western Avenue as mobs took control of the streets after a jury acquitted four police officers of beating Rodney G. King.
The crew raced toward a huge column of smoke in the distance. A vehicle pulled next to the truck and Miller felt something.
“The sensation was a flash of light and a loud bang in my head,” he recalled.
The driver had fired a single shot from a handgun. (He was later sentenced to 16 years in state prison for the shooting.)
The bullet ripped through Miller’s cheek, angled down and severed a carotid artery in his neck. It lodged behind his windpipe.
Doctors said it was doubtful that he would ever walk again.
It was the type of injury that might have understandably broken a lesser man. But Miller’s passion was firefighting, and he was determined to live and return to the firehouse.
“Scott has a special kind of courage that not everyone has,” said Fire Chief Douglas Barry, who worked with Miller in the department’s Fire Prevention Bureau. “Not everyone would come back from something like that.”
Paul Jordan, a veteran firefighter who now works as a fire inspector in Van Nuys, thought that Miller wouldn’t make it back.
Jordan was riding directly behind Miller as Truck Company 35 navigated through the smoke and mayhem of Western Avenue.
He saw the handgun, then the flash. “Geez, they’re shooting at us,” Jordan recalled thinking.
Craning his neck, Jordan saw Miller slumped on the wheel. The captain pulled an emergency brake and the 55-foot-long vehicle lumbered to a stop.
Blood was squirting from Miller’s neck.
Jordan, a wiry firefighter who had worked at some of the city’s busiest stations, had seen his share of gunshot wounds. This one wasn’t good. “I thought he was going to die,” he said.
Another firefighter pressed his hand against Miller’s neck to stem the bleeding as the crew loaded him into the back of the truck. Jordan jumped behind the wheel and took off for Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.
Miller was conscious. He tried to relax his breathing. He thought about his wife, 3-year-old daughter and 5-year-old boy.
“I had to do what I needed to do to stay alive so I could raise my kids,” he said.
The last thing he remembered that evening was the nurses cutting off his clothes as he lay on a gurney in the emergency room.
The doctors made a six-inch incision below his jaw line to remove the bullet. They delivered the bad news to Miller and his wife the next morning: A blood clot had formed in his brain. He was paralyzed on the left side of his body, and he couldn’t speak.
For nine weeks, Miller was in the hospital, where he was fed liquids from a tube because of damage to his throat. His 6-foot-2 frame, toned from working, weakened as he lost 20 pounds.
It was a trying time filled with continuous therapy. Miller slowly regained feeling and some motion on his left side.
“It was always my goal to go back to full duty,” he said.
But reality hit a year later when a fast-moving apartment fire killed 10 people in Westlake. Miller watched the tragedy on the evening news as firefighters pulled heavy hoses and carried victims into ambulances.
With his left hand unable to do fine motor skills, Miller realized that he would never be able to again do the backbreaking work required at a fire.
“It’s time to look at it and face the reality that you’re not going to fight fire,” he recalled thinking. “You’re going to have to do something else.”
He ended up in the Fire Prevention Bureau, where he’s now a captain supervising a crew that inspects commercial buildings in the San Fernando Valley.
Last week, Miller sat behind a desk in his Van Nuys office helping two customers seeking information about fire permits needed for convalescent homes.
“For him to be back on the job, I think it’s a miracle,” said Jordan.
Miller said he’s come to realize that he can still make a difference as an inspector and do the public service that attracted him to firefighting nearly 29 years ago.
“It’s an area of work that I’ve come to respect,” he said. “I realized that I had to move on and refocus on the more important things of life, that I can’t drag my dream with me until it becomes a nightmare ruining other positive things in my life.”