It was cool and quiet on December 4, 1984 as Los Angeles Police Officers Joe Ransfer and Robert Lopez patrolled in their car the area surrounding Los Angeles International Airport. As they drove past the southern runways at about 4:50AM, they were stunned to see flames punching through the roof of The Proud Bird restaurant. A radio call was made and OCD issued a structure fire assignment at 4:54AM (TF 95, TF5, E80, BC4).
First in units realized they had a working fire and the initial "size-up" resulted in additional units being called. Within minutes 23 companies and Deputy Chief Don Anthony were either on scene or en route, including Engine 54.
The fire was stubborn, having actually been started by thieves just after midnight - it had a nearly five hour head-start and had pushed its way from the main floor of the restaurant into the huge 130 by 175 foot attic of the facility. The unique construction of the building also made the attack difficult. The roof contained a maze of construction beams, supports and other elements that diluted the traditional venting operations of firefighters on the roof.
As an interior attack continued, the crew of Engine 54, including Captain Jim N. DiGrado, Firefighters Walter T. Barnett and Benjamin Pinel were working an inch-and-a-half line through the ballroom. Engine 66 was engaged in a similar effort. Suddenly, without warning, a tremendous flashover occurred, pushing firefighters back due to the extreme heat and fire. Engine 66 and 54 retreated to the street, only to discover that Firefighter Pinel was missing.
Michael and Benjamin (Right) Pinel At Graduation 1983
Garcia was forced to abandon the building for a fresh air bottle, but immediately returned to continue his search. Now, only the tone from Pinel's PAL device could be heard, but Pinel himself was not to be found. As his air ran low, Garcia, now exhausted, exited the building for a third air bottle and a third attempt to find the missing firefighter.
As Garcia and others searched, the fire in the attic continued to escalate. Firefighting and search and rescue operations were ongoing and after awhile, Pinel was found, about 75 feet from the nozzle of his line. He had apparently attempted to exit in a wrong direction and became disoriented. He did not survive and heat and smoke in the ballroom.
Benjamin Pinel left a wife and six-month old daughter behind, and a brother who was also a firefighter, Michael, then stationed at Task Force 66. Garcia was awarded the medal of valor for his efforts. Arson investigators later arrested Jose Jesus Davilla related to the arson fire at the restaurant, but he was not convicted, due to a lack of hard evidence. He was deported to Mexico, having been in the US illegally.
Today, 21 years later. all Los Angeles firefighters remember Pinel, Garcia, and the Proud Bird. The name of Pinel is inscribed on the wall of the new Firefighter Memorial in Hollywood, just outside Old Fire Station 27. If you ask anyone who hears about this story, they're likely to tell you Pinel was a hero. If you ask a firefighter, they're more likely to say, "it's just another part of the job."