Less than 90 seconds after the bed alarm broke sleep, Los Angeles Fire Department Battalion Chief Gregg Avery and his partner, Chris Klimpel, raced out of Station 13 through the streets of Pico-Union to Victory Baptist Church.
The lights of their command car scanned dark shop windows. Their sirens chased cars to the curb. South on highway 110 there was little traffic.
Avery, 62, and Klimpel, 49, were in the 20th hour of their 24-hour shift, another day at work for the veteran firefighters with nearly 57 years of experience together fighting fires in Los Angeles.
But as skilled as they are, the next half hour would prove once again how unpredictable the most routine calls are and how quickly they can become potentially fatal.
Avery’s and Klimpel’s recollections of that night—September 11, 2022—and a summary report from LAFD provide a poignant account of the 30-minute battle to save the historic church. It was based on the efforts of 150 firefighters who stormed the property that had hosted famous politicians, civil rights advocates and gospel musicians over the course of its nearly 80 years.
Radios, TV monitors and satellite phones in the command vehicle gave Avery and Klimpel a picture of what lay ahead. The LAFD report took over some broadcasts.
“IC of SQ21, we entered through the Charlie side. I’m going to come forward and open that door for you from the inside. There is smoke on the first floor, no active fire inside.”
Using a circular saw, firefighters had cut a padlock on the gate, got inside the perimeter fence, forced open the side door and swung open the main doors.
Firefighters had tested the roof’s strength using specialized hooks via aerial ladders, then opened up a section with a chainsaw and scanned the inside with a thermal imager.
The fire had been burning for nearly an hour, according to the LAFD report, which originated in “the crawl space under the raised foundation.” Flames soon rose into the attic, cluttered with rafters and sheathing.
Avery, who has conducted training seminars for the department, explained the physics.
Unchecked with enough fuel and oxygen, a fire will double in size every 60 seconds, he said. It gets hotter, quickly reaching 1,128 degrees, and carbon monoxide in the smoke burns — a flashover — and pushes the flames further.
In the attic the wood burned, it tensed and cracked with the heat. Chicken wire, nailed to the beams and the thick plaster ceiling held in place, weakened, all before anyone got there. The 911 calls came in at 2:22 a.m
‘We draw heavy fire’
Avery and Klimpel arrived at 2:32 am. The street was lined with ladder trucks, motor companies, a command vehicle and an ambulance. It was a major emergency fire, drawing nearly 15% of the department’s citywide workforce that is typically on duty every day.
Avery got out of the truck, looked up to see flames and smoke rising into the night sky. He heard chainsaws on the roof.
The job that night was simple, he remembered: attack the fire, protect the property, and keep everyone safe. The strategy was routine: open from above (to vent the smoke), attack from below (with water from hoses).
But he and Klimpel knew there was a good chance of saving the building.
“Historically, churches and supermarkets have been losers,” Avery said: too much roof, too much open space. The fire develops quickly, red-hot and quickly, before anyone notices.
“It’s way ahead of us by the time we get there,” Klimpel said.
An update on the tactical channel from the roof confirmed the worst. “We have several holes. We’re under heavy fire.’
Avery dove into his heavy jacket, donned his helmet, gloves, and respirator. He contacted the incident commander, who assigned him and Klimpel an annex on the second floor, connected to the church at the back.
Before joining the firefighters already on that part of the blaze, Avery stepped into the church, the sanctuary. He had to report to the battalion chief.
A large hole in the ceiling allowed the light from the fire to illuminate a succession of pews. Smoke floated above his head.
The first attempts to open the ceiling with 3 meter high pike poles failed. The heavy plaster, mixed with Portland cement, more than four inches thick and applied to a chicken wire lath, required an ax to break through.
Two firefighters stood on 20-foot extending ladders and battled the flames in the attic, trying to create a horizontal line to sweep the fire with water. Two others managed the hoses at the foot of the ladders. A fifth pulled an additional snake into the church.
Avery tried not to think about the loss of this church, the center of so many people’s lives. Instead, he calculated the risk.
Two years ago, more than 230 firefighters battled a fire on Boyd Street in downtown Los Angeles. An explosion seriously injured 11, some of whom are still not back to work.
“A building on fire is a building being demolished,” Avery said, and the church quickly collapsed.
Avery and Klimpel left the shrine. The stairs to the annex were accessible from the car park but were interrupted.
“May Day! may day! May!” The international distress signal came over their radios. “We’ve got firefighters trapped!”
Seconds earlier, a piece of plaster, weakened by the fire, had come loose from the ceiling. It hit a firefighter on a ladder and knocked another down first, trapping him.
“All units of the McKinley incident, a Mayday is underway. Hold your radio traffic!
Avery and Klimpel hurried back to help.
“We had a collapsing roof! One member is stuck! Give me a (rapid intervention squad) and a rescue squad in the front! We still have heavy attic involvement above us!”
Klimpel felt the heat of the fire, fueled by a sudden absorption of oxygen, rise above him. He worried that more would fall from the ceiling. All he could see of the firefighter on the ground was his head and part of his shoulder under a pile of rubble. He joined half a dozen firefighters who tried to lift the slab, but it was immobile.
The captain organized their efforts – “one, two, three” – and together they tried to lift the plate.
Again: “One, two, three.”
The trapped firefighter tried to get out from under the weight inch by inch.
“One two Three.”
Avery saw the rescue in progress and left the sanctuary. The time lost in the rescue was time lost in putting out the fire, and he had to join the firefighters on the second floor.
When he reached the stairs, he got an update.
“The Mayday is over, two members are walking out now, steady, we got them to the stairs. Everyone is counted.”
Avery felt relieved. He started walking up the stairs. The smoke thickened on the second floor. With less than a foot of visibility, he reached for his facemask and regulator.
Then he felt what seemed like an earthquake. The building shook. He knew it was another ceiling collapse less than three minutes after the first. He had to go back.
He ran down the stairs and once in the parking lot found himself still holding his face mask. He had gone so fast that he didn’t take time to put it back in his pouch.
The other firefighters followed. Then the radio came to life:
“IC, IC Mayday, Mayday! Division 1! We have several members trapped!”
Avery had to find his partner.
After the first Mayday was vacated, Klimpel left the building. The main doors of the church were crowded, so he walked to a side door, resting his left shoulder against the wall in the dim and smoky light.
Suddenly he heard the creaking and peeling sound of the ceiling coming loose. He sensed that something terrible was about to happen.
“Watch out! Watch out!” he heard.
He started to run when another piece of plaster, twice the size of the first one, came crashing down. Fire rolled out of the gaping hole. Men screamed and screamed.
One firefighter was scraped by the falling slab, but another – who had been at the center of the initial rescue effort – ended up directly below it. But as for his helmet, it was completely covered, just like the first Mayday, only this time there was more debris and it was burning.
“We have a second Mayday! Everyone at the McKinley Incident, we’re having a second Mayday! Clear your traffic!”
Klimpel met Avery at the side door and they ran back to the shrine.
“We have a member currently trapped, critical. Two other members missing in Division 1.”
Klimpel heard the downed man moaning and screaming.
The fire was all around them now. Avery was worried about the burning fallen man. The hoses they had brought in were pinned under the ceiling and were useless. He ordered a new line. Klimpel dragged one in.
The fallen plate was so large that a chainsaw was used. Someone saw the cuts.
The trapped firefighter was freed after 2½ minutes. Rescue teams carried him out by the handcuffs.
“Get me out of here!” he continued to scream from the sidewalk, still traumatized by the ordeal. A cameraman across the street captured the detail on video.
Paramedics put the injured firefighter on a stretcher and took him to the hospital.
Life versus possession
The momentum of the battle faltered now as the flames raced around them.
Klimpel felt the futility. They had arrived too late. The fire had progressed too far. Someone almost died. He thought of the Boyd Street explosion two years ago. Now that firefighters are recovering, the building has been rebuilt and a new business is operating in that space.
“We are 100% committed to protecting your property, but your property is not worth a firefighter getting hurt,” said Avery. There’s the pain and ongoing trauma, of course, but there’s also the cost. Taking risks “is not a good business model for the department, not a good use of taxpayers’ money.”
With the Mayday cleared, the incident commander changed orders. The firefighters took up defensive positions.
The ladders to the roof retracted. They were re-equipped and raised high above the flames, where water was poured into the center of the building at nearly 400 liters per minute.
Avery looked through the open doors at the shrine burning bright with flames. They lost the church.
“It was an unfortunate series of events, but the history is true,” Klimpel said. “Churches and supermarkets never end well.”
The fire was extinguished at 4 a.m.
“There’s nothing mysterious or nefarious or evil here,” Avery said. “It was a sad incident. Sad and terrible that our boys were injured and the church was destroyed.
The Victory Baptist Church fire had three firefighters trapped. Ten others had experienced near misses.
Six months later, two of the injured are still off duty and still recovering.