Firefighters Tony Sheen, left, and Jon McDuffie, right, in 1992EXPAND
Firefighters Tony Sheen, left, and Jon McDuffie, right, in 1992
Courtesy Jon McDuffie

25 Years After the Riots: An L.A. Firefighter Recalls Battling Blazes and Racism

This is the fourth installment in a series of as-told-to stories from Angelenos who witnessed the first 48 hours of the 1992 riots. When the riots broke out, Jon McDuffie was a firefighter at one of the busiest stations in the world. After 20 years on the job, he retired in 2009. Now 47, he's a consultant with On Scene Emergency Management Solutions.

I was working at one of the busiest fire stations in the world, Fire Station #9, right on Skid Row. The Wine-O Nine-Os. I was 22, and with three and a half years on the job I was one of the most senior firefighters in the station, because old firemen don’t go to that station. Back then we were still getting a lot of fires. So you'd go there to get your call load up, get your experience, and it runs you ragged. Then you get the hell out of there.

I was at my girlfriend’s house in Long Beach. We heard that the verdict was coming down, so we stopped to watch. The verdict came down. I was disappointed — not surprised, but disappointed. We thought, maybe a hung jury.

Firefighters and police officers are so closely aligned that in the fire station most of those guys thought that the police officers being tried weren’t guilty. You know: “They did what they had to do.” That’s what you’d hear day in and day out. I worked at a station where I was one of only two or three black firefighters, which was not uncommon. At fire stations, even then, it was cowboy music and Vietnam vets and a whole lot of code switching to get through the day.

We watched it go down on TV, saw everything blow up at Florence and Normandie. And I realized this was going to be a long night. So I just told my girlfriend, "Hey, I got to go."

I called the station. Of course nobody was there. I decided to drive in. Coming up the 110, there were fires on either side of the freeway, all the way. Then getting off the freeway downtown on Sixth Street, the streets were just silent.

I got to the station, opened the doors, nobody was there. Then five minutes later, an off-duty battalion chief showed up. And he said, “What are you doing here?”

I’m like, “Figured I should probably show up.”

He goes, “Me too. Let’s get a car.”

He had red hair. I don’t want to say he looked like Bozo the Clown, but he had red hair around the edges, and a bulbous nose. An old-timey chief. He liked me for some reason — a “stick with me, kid” kind of thing.

Back then they used Pontiac sedans as command vehicles. And we found one, got it all outfitted with radios, batteries, maps. He called in to dispatch and said, “Hey, we’re loaded up and ready to go, do you have anything for us?” They said, “Actually, yeah.”

They gave us five engine companies from outside the city, from Culver City, Beverly Hills. And they just lumped us together and said, “OK, you’re ready to go on calls.” And once we went on the first call, they didn’t stop.

I don’t think we ever got below the 10 freeway. Our first fires were in downtown Los Angeles. I remember there was a two-story building on Los Angeles Street, just south of First Street, on the east side. An older building. We pulled up to it, and it’s going stem to stern, and you got these five engines from small cities that might get a fire a month. And they were all eyes.

You’ve got to imagine: You’ve been doing your job for five years, and 90 percent of the work you do is medical [calls]. So every time you get a fire, there’s a chance to practice this craft that you’ve been working toward. I don’t think any of us at the time were thinking about the history of it, or even the politics of what was going on. It was a shitload of fires! Even when we started, we weren’t thinking about gunfire or people shooting at us or anything like that.

I don’t think we were fired at, but man, there were a lot of bullets flying over our heads! I grew up in South L.A. I’ve heard a lot of gunshots. That was my first time hearing bullets whiz. You hear the "pap!" and the "fssssss!"

The communications weren’t like today, so it’s not like we were getting real-time updates. Those first few days were cowboy days. You’re hauling ass down the street going to a fire, and a group of firefighters are passing you the other way. We’d go from smoke column to smoke column and tell dispatch, "We’ve come across another fire at da da da.” They’d say, “No, we actually need you at so-and-so.”

We had to change tactics. Normally, a small fire, you’ll be on it for two hours making sure it’s out. But that night, we were dousing and running. There was no cleanup, there was no walking through checking for hot spots. It was, put it out as best you can, hope that you have most of the flames out and that it wouldn’t rekindle.

It was building triage. If we had one that was well involved and another one that just started, we’d leave the well-involved one and go to the one that was just starting — which was totally against everything we’d done.

The aftermath of the riotsEXPAND
The aftermath of the riots

We got back to the station in the morning. We weren’t supposed to have been working the day before, and now, Thursday, was our work day. We went back, showered, changed clothes. We were all in the kitchen, and some of the guys from the truck had come back. And there was a lot of racial energy around the station at the time. There was me and [black firefighter] Tony Sheen and I want to say one other black guy. There was some tension in the station. And this one knucklehead said: “Hey, where you guys coming from?”

“Worked all night. What are you talking about where am I coming from?”

“I didn’t see you. I’m sure you were out there looting with your brothers.”

All hell broke loose in that kitchen. It wasn’t a knock-down drag-out fight, but it was a physical tussle – pushing and shoving and holding back. It was like, “Motherfucker!”

On my first day on the fire department, I had just turned 19, and my captain calls me in at 7 o’clock at night. As he’s giving me my station orientation, he said: “You know and I know that the only reason you’re here is because of affirmative action. There’s no way a 19-year-old nigger from Watts should be in this department. And I’ve got three months to prove that to you.” I’ll never forget that. And then he’s like, “Now…” and he goes through the rest of the stuff. That was like cold water to the face.

I think a lot of guys experienced different versions of that. But after the riots, I think all of us kind of looked at each other and just went, you’ve got to be true to yourself. You know, code switching only works to a certain point. You’ve got to let your voice be heard in the station. It’s not about starting shit, but speak up. Just like other people’s opinions impact you, if you present the other side of that, maybe it’ll impact them.

I think it made me more outspoken.

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