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Waterlogged ceiling in Hollywood Hills home fell on veteran firefighter

February 17, 2011 | 11:42 am

Water from a sprinkler system in a burning Hollywood Hills home caused the ceiling to collapse and crash onto firefighters, including a veteran who is now "fighting for his life," officials said Thursday.

Click here to view an interactive map The L.A. city firefighter, whose name was not released, was in grave condition at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. A second firefighter also was hospitalized with a broken ankle. Four others were treated and released.

A large section of the waterlogged dropped ceiling -- and everything attached to it -- came down virtually in one piece on firefighters, said Capt. Tina Haro, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles Fire Department.

What began as a routine call at 11:19 p.m. Wednesday at the multimillion-dollar home on the steep hillsides above Hollywood turned into a disaster for the 83 city and county firefighters on scene.

Firefighters on the roof were unaffected by the collapse, but those working inside had no idea what was coming, Haro said.

“We were doing our normal, aggressive things that we do,” Haro said. “It was just one of those kind of freak things that happen that we don’t expect or anticipate.”

Water started collecting in the ceiling when a sprinkler broke or melted, Haro said. Apparently, the ceiling was securely attached to the roof and airtight; firefighters did not see so much as a drip from above to warn them of the impending danger. When the weight of the gathering water finally became too great, the ceiling descended all at once.

The debris engulfed the most seriously injured firefighter and was too heavy to remove by hand. Rescuers used a chainsaw to cut their way through, and when they got to him, he wasn't breathing and was in full cardiac arrest. They began cardiopulmonary resuscitation before rushing the injured man to the hospital.

L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's office described the firefighter as a 38-year department veteran. Haro said he was nearing retirement and had been considering leaving the department within the next year or so.

Investigators still sifting through debris Thursday morning believe the fire may have started in a fireplace, then spread to the walls and ceiling areas, Haro said. It took about 90 minutes to extinguish.

From the front, the redwood-trimmed, sleek modern structure, in the 1500 block of North Viewsite Drive looked almost untouched. From one side, a gaping, charred slash runs from floor to ceiling, exposing a glimpse of the damage inside.

According to public records, the property sold in 2008 for nearly $7.1 million. Since then, the house has been substantially rebuilt into a 12,500-square-foot, three-story estate. The top floor opens to the street; two other levels drape down the hillside, with spectacular floor-to-ceiling views.

A woman at the scene, who did not give her name, described herself as the girlfriend of the property owner, identified by her and by broadcast reports as Gerhard Becker. She said Becker is an architect who designed the house and that she is an artist involved in the interior decoration.

Both were asleep, she said, when the fire broke out. They escaped unharmed. A man identified as Becker gave the same account to KTLA.

The woman said city inspectors had just approved a certificate of occupancy days ago.


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-- Irfan Khan in the Hollywood Hills and Howard Blume

Photo: Fire officials sift through debris at the scene of the fire. Credit: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times