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L.A. firefighter gravely injured, others hurt while battling fire at Hollywood Hills home

A home sprinkler system intended to save lives may instead have turned a burning Hollywood Hills home into a death trap for firefighters, one of whom was clinging to life Thursday after the sprinklers apparently led to a ceiling collapse.

After a call at 11:19 p.m. Wednesday, Los Angeles firefighters arrived at the home in the 1500 block of North Viewsite Drive to find the house, set against a steep hillside along a narrow winding road, ablaze.

More than 80 firefighters went to the scene. Some scrambled onto the roof; others ran inside. Two occupants of the home escaped unharmed.

Unknown to the firefighters, a fire suppression sprinkler line broke or melted, and water was collecting above the well-sealed drop ceiling. A substantial section of the ceiling and everything attached to it crashed down.

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“We were doing our normal aggressive things that we do,” said Capt. Tina Haro, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles Fire Department. “It was just one of those kind of freak things that happen that we don’t expect or anticipate.”

Debris engulfed a 38-year veteran of the Los Angeles Fire Department. Rescuers used a chainsaw to cut their way through to him. When they reached their colleague, he wasn’t breathing and was in full cardiac arrest. They began cardiopulmonary resuscitation, then rushed him to nearby Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where he was listed in grave condition.

At the request of the man’s wife, his name is being withheld. Colleagues said he had talked of retiring within the next year or so. One Fire Department employee said the man was looking forward to the birth this month of his first grandchild.

A second firefighter was hospitalized with a broken ankle. Four others — two from the city Fire Department and two from the county department — were treated for minor injuries and released.

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According to public records, the property sold in 2008 for nearly $7.1 million. The top floor of the refashioned house opens to the street; two other levels descend down the hillside. One fire official said the residents had moved into the home about a week ago.

Investigators sifting through debris Thursday morning said the fire may have started in a fireplace, then spread to the walls and ceiling areas, Haro said.

The possible source of the fire and the role of the sprinklers have raised questions about the home’s design and construction, which are under investigation, said David Lara, a spokesman for the city’s building and safety department.

He couldn’t confirm Thursday whether the city had mandated a sprinkler system, which is sometimes required in a large home or those on hillsides with difficult access.

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A woman at the scene, who declined to give her name, described herself as the girlfriend of property owner Gerhard Becker. She said Becker, an architect, designed the rebuilt house. The two were asleep when the fire broke out, she said. City inspectors had just approved a certificate of occupancy days ago, she added.

Becker declined to be interviewed.

howard.blume@latimes.com

Times staff writer Irfan Khan contributed to this report.

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