Edward Watters could smell the fire before he saw it. It was after 11 p.m. as Watters maneuvered his engine up Sunset Plaza Drive, a narrow, twisting road that leads up into the Hollywood Hills. Only when the fire captain turned onto Viewsite Drive did he see the glow.
As he pulled alongside the house, he sized up the situation for his dispatcher: "A two-story, single-family dwelling. We've got fire showing on the outside of the structure."
The home was actually three stories — one at street level and two below, for a total of 12,500 square feet — but Watters couldn't tell that from the street. As firefighters began pouring water onto the redwood siding, Watters climbed a ladder and looked down at the patio. Through a sliding glass door, he could see into the living room: a big, empty, modern space with clean lines and high ceilings. There was no fire inside — only a wisp of smoke.
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To him, that meant the fire was in the attic. The firefighters quickly extinguished the fire on the outside wall, but a lick of flame showed from the roofline.
Two firefighters climbed ladders to the roof. Working with chain saws, they began opening holes to ventilate the attic. As they did, flames appeared directly beneath them. Smoke billowed from the roof and clogged the chain saws' air filters, forcing the men to back off temporarily.
The homeowner, Gerhard Becker, had been asleep with his girlfriend in the bedroom on the lower level when they heard water gushing down the stairs. The sprinkler pipes had melted in the walls. They ran outside. Becker shut off the water supply, and they stood shivering on the street as the firefighters tried to save the house.
By that time, Watters and his crew were in the expansive living room. When Watters aimed his thermal-imaging camera at the ceiling, it turned red. He told his crew to start punching holes in the ceiling so they could locate the base of the fire and start hosing it down.
Experienced firefighters know that every minute counts: Flames weaken a structure the longer they burn. But punching the holes proved difficult. Their pike poles were 6 feet long, and the ceiling was almost 12 feet high. So the firemen were thrusting upward, wearing 50 pounds of gear, and barely reaching the ceiling. When they punched through the drywall, they encountered thick insulation. Watters told his men to stand on top of a low coffee table, which made it easier to reach — while he called for longer pike poles.
The dispatcher radioed that they had been on scene for 15 minutes.
As they began to direct water on the fire from below, Watters radioed to the captain on the roof to ask if they were making progress. "We've got no effect at all," he replied.
Inside, the firefighters punched a hole in the wall just above a recessed, 15-foot fireplace. They discovered an unusually large void behind it. The walls did not have the typical fire stops — two-by-fours or sections of plywood that would slow the progress of flame. Over the radio, Watters reported that the fire was "running between the walls."
A firefighter climbed inside the wall and started spraying water up toward the attic. At last, the crew on the roof reported that they were making headway: "You guys are starting to get it," the captain said.
Watters moved farther into the open room, aiming his thermal-imaging camera at the ceiling and directing his crew to punch more holes with the long pike poles.
The captain on the roof continued to see progress. Back by the patio door, though, he saw flame. "It is coming up a little," he radioed.
The dispatcher called out the time: "We have 30 minutes on the incident clock."
Inside, Watters went back to the patio door, where they had started to knock the fire down, and saw smoke coming from a sprinkler head. He punched a hole in the ceiling and saw more flame.
Then — a tremendous crash.
The next thing Watters realized, he was lying on his back, looking up at flames. He could not move. "Where are my firefighters?" he wondered. "Why aren't they here next to me? What's happening?"
It was eerily silent. A few feet away, another firefighter was also trapped. Glenn Allen, a department veteran of 36 years, had been standing on the coffee table. Now he was pinned in a seated position with his chest against his knees — and 1,000 pounds of wood, drywall and waterlogged insulation on his back.
"Roof collapse on the interior," the radio crackled. "Firefighters down."
A scramble ensued in order to see who was missing. Chain saws were brought in. The dispatcher assigned a newly arrived engine company to lead the rescue. But because the street was only wide enough for one engine, the rescuers had to jog a distance uphill to reach the scene.