LOS ANGELES (AP) — Firefighters made a dramatic ladder rescue of a man about to jump from a burning Los Angeles apartment building on Wednesday and helicopters plucked people from the roof of the 25-story high-rise as other terrified residents fled through smoke-choked stairwells to safety.
Six people were hospitalized, including a 3-month-old. Two were in critical condition, including the would-be jumper, in the fire that occurred in a building where a similar blaze broke out seven years ago, authorities said.
Residents described a frightening flight to safety, as they tried to move down crowded stairwells that forced some to turn back and go to the roof. Firefighters were coming up the stairs as people with children, pets and the some elderly tenants moved slowly downward.
A panicked Cecilee Mathieson tried to push past in her rush from her penthouse. When she reached the floor on fire, she could see the orange glow under the door.
“I really thought I was going to die today,” Mathieson said hours later.
Firefighters had been at an office building fire two blocks away when the blaze broke out on Wilshire Boulevard on the edge of the tony Brentwood section of the city, allowing a rapid response.
Gavyn Straus was swimming in the pool in the courtyard when he saw black smoke waft by. As the smoke grew rapidly, Straus knew it was no kitchen fire and he ran into the building dripping wet to alert staff.
A woman at the front desk was calling police, so he hopped on an elevator with a maintenance man to alert residents on the 8th floor, where they thought the fire was coming from. A man who had been sleeping answered the first door they pounded on and they realized they were above the blaze and ran for the stairs.
They were overwhelmed with smoke when they opened the door to the burning floor below.
“It was a black wall,” Straus said hours later as he stood barefoot on the sidewalk, still wearing his surf trunks with only a towel draped over his shoulders and goggles around his neck. “Someone ran out from that side and they were completely covered in black char and they could barely breathe.”
The person said their friend was still inside, but Straus said he couldn’t help because he couldn’t see anything and it was too hot.
Instead, he ran to the 21st floor, where he lives, to alert friends and other tenants he knew. No alarm had yet been sounded and he was surprised to hear laughter coming through the doors as people ate breakfast unaware of the danger below.
“Get out, there’s fire. Get out,” he yelled.
Dr. Tom Grogan, an orthopedic surgeon who works in the building next door, was arriving at his office when he saw flames shooting from the building. His office manager called 911 and Grogan, who had seen the building burn in 2013, watched as firefighters struggled to get water to the fire on the 6th floor.
A resident of the building with burns on his arms was hanging from a window as if he was going to jump. Firefighters inflated an airbag below but managed to get a ladder to him to save him.
“It was scary to watch,” Grogan said.
More than 330 firefighters responded and it took about 90 minutes to knock down the blaze, Deputy Fire Chief Armando Hogan said. Arson investigators are looking into whether it was deliberately set.
“It is suspicious right now,” Fire Chief Ralph Terrazas said.
Two 30-year-old men who were in the apartment where the fire began were in critical condition, and one was described as grave. Fire crews had to crawl on their bellies using bottled oxygen to reach the apartment where the blaze began. Five others were treated at the scene.
The fire left windows blown out and heavy black smoke or burn marks on three sides of building. Residents who fled in whatever they wearing or could quickly get into — some in pajamas and exercise clothes — gathered on nearby street corners and looked up as helicopters hovered and hoisted rooftop evacuees and small white dog to safety.
A fire at the Barrington Plaza high-rise in 2013 injured several people and displaced more than 100. The complex has 240 units that range in rent from $2,350 to $3,695 per month, according to Zillow.
Fire officials said the building was not equipped with sprinklers. It was built in 1961 before regulations required fire-suppression systems in buildings taller than 75 feet (22.8 meters) feet.
The building owners did not immediately return messages seeking comment.