By Patrick McGreevy
Los Angeles Times
It was an act of bravery on an unusual scale: Thirteen Los Angeles police officers repeatedly entered a fire-engulfed retirement home, kicking down locked doors and navigating smoke-choked hallways to rescue 80 senior citizens.
But somehow, due to a bureaucratic mix-up, the 1996 incident never received official recognition from the LAPD.
Now, more than a decade later, Police Chief William J. Bratton has recommended that the 13 officers receive the Los Angeles Police Department's most prestigious award, the Medal of Valor, which is awarded for acts of "extreme courage while consciously facing imminent peril."
The award, though late, means a lot to the officers who put their lives on the line that day.
"It's really nice to get this," said Sgt. Miguel Lopez, who works at the Southwest Police Station now but in 1996 was assigned to bike patrol in the Wilshire Division neighborhood where the fire occurred.
Saturday, he remembered getting the call on June 21, 1996, at 9 p.m. while riding his bike two blocks away from the retirement home on the corner of Croft Avenue and Beverly Boulevard. He could see smoke billowing from the building.
Officers Jeffrey Wenninger and Jose Castellanos were first to arrive and tried to enter through the front door, but the thick smoke forced them back.
Soon, others arrived: Sgt. Albert Gavin and Officers Sandy Kim, Alberto Junco, Stephan Diaz, Arturo Perez, Mark Pursel, Kenyard Bilal, Gerard Jackson, Guy Dobine and Jude Washington. Together, they devised a rescue plan.
The officers formed human chains, holding hands to avoid getting lost in the smoke. Others crawled on their hands and knees, the chief said.
"Each officer reentered the burning and smoke-filled retirement home between five to 10 times to rescue the elderly residents of the facility," Bratton said in a report to the Police Commission, which is scheduled to vote on the medals Tuesday.
Lopez said he rescued eight people. "I could hear a woman screaming for help on the second floor," he recalled. "I had to carry her down the stairs."
Wenninger, Lopez, Junco and Castellanos suffered smoke inhalation that required hospital attention. Wenninger was admitted to the intensive care unit but released the next day, the chief's report said.
Why has it taken so long for the department to recognize the officers' actions?
"The initial commendation report regarding this incident was misplaced," the chief's report said.
Better late than never, said Lopez.
"It's OK that it's been 10 years," he said.
In the meantime, Kim has moved on to the Santa Ana Police Department, where he is a detective; Perez is an officer with the Burbank Police Department; and Bilal and Jackson left the LAPD in 1998.
Those who left are still being recommended to get the award.
Interestingly, the medal recommendation is not the oldest one made by Bratton this year. The Times reported Thursday that the chief recommended a posthumous Medal of Valor for Officer Walter Kesterson, who was killed in 1946 in an exchange of gunfire with two armed robbery suspects. It is a mystery why Kesterson's valor was not recognized at the time.
The chief is also recommending the Medal of Valor for Officers Rudy Barragan and Marco Briones, who struggled to pull an unconscious motorist from the twisted metal of a wrecked car as fire spread through the vehicle. The two officers had responded to a traffic accident May 1, 2006, in the Newton Division but could not get the unconscious driver, who weighed more than 250 pounds, out a window.
Suddenly the dashboard ignited. As two other officers tried to fight the fire, Briones and Barragan broke out the back window and tried unsuccessfully to pull the driver out that way.
They went back to the front as the fire began to spread.
Using what Bratton described as "tremendous strength," they eventually pulled the driver from the car.
"Just as they cleared the vehicle and were dragging the driver to safety," he wrote, "the vehicle exploded and was completely engulfed in flames."
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13 LAPD officers awarded decade later; saved 80 from fire