The 1992 L.A. Riots will be forever etched in the memories of people who were alive to witness the death and destruction that broke out after the verdicts were read in the Rodney King trial. The civil unrest, the violence, looting, arson, assaults, racial tension, resentment; a horrific time in Los Angeles history for everyone. Everybody on edge. Many terrified. Scarred. First responders overwhelmed. The situation, too difficult to control. Los Angeles a tinderbox. The brave LAFD firefighters, struggling to save life and property were not immune from the violence and danger. They too were targets.
The L.A. Riots started on April 29, 1992, followed by six nonstop days of unrest. Los Angeles exploded into flames and violence after a jury acquitted four LAPD officers of nearly all charges, including using excessive force in the beating of Rodney King. That beating and arrest were caught on tape and shown on television around the world. After the officers were set free, the city ignited. According to varying reports as many at 65 people were killed, more than 2,000 injured, and as many as 12,000 arrested. Thousands of fires, destroying more than one-thousand buildings, ignited. The damage – more than a billion-dollars. Thousands of federal troops deployed to help stop the violence.
The LAFD was significantly impacted by the L. A. Riots. Horror stories unfolded as the city burned. We put together a series of eyewitness reports on how the L.A. City Fire Department dealt with the chaos and how one of their own was nearly killed. We learned how the Secret Service helped plan President George H.W. Bush’s surprise visit to that firefighter and how one firefighter had a baby on the night the L.A. Riots began. Here are their stories:
The L.A. Riots and the shooting of LAFD Firefighter Scott Miller
Los Angeles Fire Department Firefighter Scott Miller, now a Captain I, retired, was responding to fires, riding in a hook-and-ladder truck the night of April 29, 1992, when the L.A. Riots broke out. A gunman driving up next to the fire truck fired a shot, hitting Scott in the face.
According to reports from the Los Angeles Daily News in 2017, Scott recalled what happened in a session with reporters at the LAFD’s Frank Hotchkin Memorial Training Center.
“This individual did a lot more than just shoot me that night. He basically was out there taking advantage of a situation,” Scott said about the gunman, whose name he refused to utter. “There were some people that were taking advantage by carrying a TV across the street. He was taking advantage of it in a different way.”
“I was off for approximately six months before I returned to work on a restricted day,” Scott said. After about two and a half years he says he realized he was never going back to the frontline.
L.A. Riots: George H.W. Bush’s surprise visit
Retired LAFD Battalion Chief Steve Ruda says “I heard that the President of the United States, the senior George Bush, was coming to Los Angeles. So, I said, well, my job as a public information officer is to see if we can get the President of the United States to visit Scott Miller. I said, wouldn’t that be a wonderful thing for morale for Scott Miller?”
“So, I called the White House and I said, this is Captain Ruda in Los Angeles Fire Department. We’d like to speak about planning to invite the President of the United States, while he’s here in Los Angeles, to view what has happened here, to visit one of our firefighters that was injured. And they said, we’ll get back to you. I thought, okay, well it was worth the effort. And I never expected a phone call back. Within 10 minutes, I had a phone call from a man who was with Presidential Advance and he said, we like the idea about the President visiting Scott Miller in the hospital, but what about the possibility of having breakfast with the firefighters? And I go, absolutely. He says, well, we’re in the planning stages right now. You cannot tell anybody about this conversation. No one probably for security reasons. So, I couldn’t tell the chief at that moment by the directions of the Secret Service.”
L.A. Riots flashpoint: Security and Secret Service concerns
“They called me back and then we organized,” says Steve. “They said they wanted us to take the President to Florence and Normandy, the flashpoint of that civil unrest.” However, Steve explains the Secret Service was not on board. “So, I’m watching the body language of the Secret Service and their body language is, ‘not a good idea.’ So, I took them to Fire Station 46, which is at Hoover and Vernon just south of the Coliseum area.”
Firefighter Scott Miller and George H. W. Bush’s surprise visit to Cedars Sinai
“I figured, well, that’s a good place because they liked it before, it’s very, very defendable and they felt more secure,” says Steve, “So now I was allowed to tell the Fire Chief, would it be okay if the President of the United States comes to you from one of your fire stations and possibly sees Scott Miller at Cedars Sinai? Because that’s where Scott was being treated by the great surgeons and doctors and nurses there. We made a plan and we basically surprised the hospital because the Secret Service wanted to get the President in a back stairwell, go up to Intensive Care, to visit Scott Miller.”
“The President of the United States came in with a Secret Service detail and sat by Scott Miller’s bed and gave him his business card. All it said, the beautiful business card, just with his name written on it, ‘President of the United States.’ And I’m sure Scott Miller still has that card today. (President George H.W. Bush) visited and told him how he and Barbara were so proud of him for what he endured during the civil unrest. And then we visited, we took him out the back stairs and off we went to have breakfast with the firefighters at Fire Station 26, which was the home of some of the greater firefighters of the city.”
Who shot LAFD Firefighter Scott Miller?
What about the gunman? Were Police able to track down the shooter? Scott had this reaction,
“It was a random crime, there was very little evidence for them to work with, for the police to work with, so much else going on, so my mindset was not from the standpoint that I ever expected them to figure out who did it and to prosecute.”
Later, police did find the shooter. His name is Thurman Ivory Woods. He was 23 years old at the time. Woods was sentenced to 16 years in prison for the shooting. He pleaded no contest to attempted murder. He also pleaded no contest to shooting at an uninhabited dwelling and arson. According to the Associated Press Scott said, ″I will go on. I will function. I will be happy…I’m going to go on with my life, but it will not be the same life I would have had, had this event not occurred.”
LAFD firefighters at risk at the 1992 L.A. Riots
“It was a dangerous time, especially for, the most part, people like firefighters,” says retired LAFD Captain II Rick Godinez. “Any source of authority, anybody that had a badge was at risk. We had a battalion chief with an axe sent through the roof of the sedan of the police or the battalion chief’s car. We had one of our firefighters get shot during the riots. We had others being held at gunpoint. So, it was just really kind of a crazy time for our city. But eventually, as things calmed down, I just remember working in the mid-city area. A month later we’re going to the ruins of a burned-out supermarket. And somebody called for a heart attack victim, and they said they’re in there. And it was a vacant market that had burned down. And we went in and there was a skeleton of a person that had perished in the riots because that market was set on fire and wasn’t a heart attack. It was unfortunately the remains of a body. And it was just very odd, a very odd time. But what I saw was the department stretched to their capacity.”
LAFD and the L.A. Riots: “Threated by the people we were trying to protect”
In 2017, Los Angeles television news station KABC-7 spoke to then LAFD Fire Chief Ralph Terrazas, who in April 1992, was just on the verge of being promoted to captain. This was his reaction to the looting, the shootings and a city on fire: “We had about 3,600 fires,” he said. He estimated that about 1,100 buildings were destroyed. “This was people setting arson fires, and it wasn’t just one…entire blocks were on fire.” KABC-7 reported more than 3,500 firefighters were out battling blazes.
“We drove by more fires than I can ever recall. We did not stop,” the Chief said. “The flames and the smoke, however, weren’t the only dangers.” Armed escorts were called in. The California Highway Patrol provided cover for firefighters he reported to KABC-7.
“For the first time ever – and I’ve never felt this way since – I felt threatened by the people we were trying to protect.”
Underneath their usual gear fire crews began sporting body armor. “We never had it before,” the Chief said, “but now it’s a standard piece of equipment.”
Retired LAFD Captain I Jim Finn told us, for him, it was another day on the job, with danger. “I was on duty that day… we got attacked and or assaulted on our first incident. We went from one incident to another all night long.”
LAFD and the L.A. Riots Baby!
For personal reasons, Rick says he’ll remember the initial start of the L.A. Riots forever. “I was actually at the hospital. My wife was in labor, my daughter was about to be born. We call her a riot baby, because she was born on the day of the riots. So, the initial start of it and the verdict came out from the Rodney King incident, the riots started, and I remember watching that from the hospital room. And then the next day I was out the door. I was back at work, and it was just crazy for days and weeks and months on end. We were going from fire to fire to fire to incident after incident. There was still so much unrest and shootings and looting and just a crazy time in the city of Los Angeles.”
By Charles Stewart
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