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LA riots 20-year anniversary: Firefighters become targets of violence

During the L.A. riots, firefighters not only faced the dangers of blazes, but also had to worry about being targeted. In this undated photo of late April or early May of 1992, firefighters battle a blaze.
April 25, 2012 12:00:00 AM PDT
Sunday will mark the 20th anniversary of the Los Angeles riots, one of the most significant events in the city's history.

At the time, I was a general assignment reporter and was in the midst of the rioting, looting and violence set off by the April 29, 1992 verdict in the Rodney King case. During my time reporting in the streets, I even had a gun pulled on me.

I remember being at one of the first fires of the night set at Parker Center, the Los Angeles Police Department headquarters downtown. Protesters had set fire to a wooden guard shack at the entrance to the parking lot. The crowd was in a destructive frenzy that quickly got out of hand.

More than 3,000 fires were set during the riots and for the next several days it was really tough work for the Los Angeles Fire Department. Firefighters not only faced the danger of fighting fires, but also had to worry about objects being thrown at them while fighting the fires. Even worse, they became targets of gunfire.

Cpt. Scott Miller was driving a hook-and-ladder truck from one fire to another when he was shot by a passing motorist.

"I was shot in the right cheek," he recalled. "The bullet traveled along my jaw and went into my neck and severed my carotid artery and lodged midline in my throat. At that point I suffered a stroke and went face first onto the steering wheel."

Miller is fortunate to be alive today, but because of his injuries he never returned to firefighting duties.

"After about two years of doing everything in my power to make that happen, I had to accept the reality that that was just not in my future," he said.

At the beginning of the riots, I worked 24 and a half hours straight. After a short rest, I worked another 18 and a half. At times it was very scary being on the streets.

Of the many incidents we witnessed, one was of two people standing on opposite corners with guns facing each other, like an Old West shootout.

At Olympic Boulevard and Grand Avenue, merchants were not going to wait for the National Guard or the police to protect them. They took up arms and could be seen holding rifles.

One life-threatening incident took place just a few feet in front of me outside a Circuit City on Sunset Boulevard. A man dropped a VCR while running up to a television set in the middle of the street. He then reached into his waistband and pulled out a gun. Fortunately, he just ran off.

Some described looting as a game show where every looter was a winner, and some said they had nothing to worry about.

"The police are not doing anything," said one unidentified woman. "If they wanted to stop us, they would have stopped us already."

The rioting, looting and fires weren't confined to Los Angeles. A furniture store in Long Beach was set on fire and an ugly crowd made it unsafe for reporting. Someone threw a beer can at me, and even though a police officer was standing nearby, we decided we couldn't stay much longer.

The riots finally came to an end six days after they started, thanks in part to National Guard troops patrolling the streets.

Looking at the city now, 20 years later, it's hard to believe property damage exceeded $1 billion, more than 2,000 people were injured and 53 people were killed.

Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky was on the Los Angeles City Council at the time and sees a different city today.

"I think there has been a lot of progress made, especially in the relationship between the Los Angeles Police Department and the communities they serve," Yaroslavsky said. "In the past, a lot of people perceived the police department more as an outside force descending on their community, as opposed to being a partner in protecting the community."

We have made progress, but as someone who knows this city as well as I do, there is still more work to be done. Taking a look back at the riots, as we have this week, can only help us all move forward.


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