LOS ANGELES — With the 25th anniversary of the Los Angeles riots approaching, city fire Capt. Scott Miller recalled April 7 that even though dozens of blazes were raging and he had seen the unrest unfolding on TV, it wasn’t clear in those first few hours how serious the situation was becoming.
Until he was shot in the face.
“That day and at that point in what was happening, I don’t think we really realized where it was going,” Miller told reporters at the Los Angeles Fire Department’s Frank Hotchkin Memorial Training Center. “It’s not typical … to feel threatened by the public. In general the public is very supportive of the fire department.”
Miller, who was an apparatus operator at the time, was driving a fire truck through South Los Angeles a few hours after the riots began on April 29, 1992, and could see smoke rising from dozens of fires spreading across the city.
As the truck sped down Western Avenue with lights on and sirens blaring, the fireman steering the rear of the truck said a car was trying to pass them on the right.
The reaction of fireman Paul Jordan, who was riding in the truck, illustrates how unclear it was that an unprecedented amount of destruction, anarchy and mayhem was unfolding — because he was surprised someone would actually try to pass a fire truck.
“It’s very strange to have someone pass a fire truck that’s going to an emergency, to a fire. Nobody ever passes you, they always pull to the right,” said Jordan, who is now an inspector with the department. “And I looked over and he pulled out a gun and pulled the trigger and I said, ‘They’re shooting at us.’”
The Los Angeles riots broke out after a jury acquitted four members of the Los Angeles Police Department of charges of using excessive force in the videotaped beating and arrest of black motorist Rodney King.
Outrage and violence erupted in South Los Angeles and lasted for six days. More than 60 people were killed, 2,000 were injured and more than 1,000 buildings were destroyed in fires.
When the gunman opened fire at the LAFD truck that day, the bullet ripped through Miller’s neck and jawbone and severed his carotid artery, which caused him to have a stroke and become temporarily paralyzed.
The truck came to a stop and Miller’s fellow firefighters rushed him to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where a surgeon was waiting for them.
Miller said the doctors told his wife he may never walk or talk again, but they were wrong on both counts. After seven weeks in the intensive care unit, two weeks in a rehab facility and six months of recovery, Miller resumed working for the LAFD, but he would never again be on the front lines fighting fires. He is on restricted duty but is now a captain in the Fire Prevention Bureau.
“I have been able to enjoy a long career with the Los Angeles Fire Department,” Miller said. “I’m on my 36th anniversary this year. I have a grandchild that I have been able to watch grow up, and that all is just the fruits of happiness.”
He added, “I could say I had a bad day and I was very unlucky, or look at it that I had a good day that day. Yeah, I had a bad day, I got shot. But I had a really good day from the standpoint, I had a severed carotid artery and I survived it.”
Four months after the riots, the LAPD caught the man who shot Miller.
Thurman Woods, a reputed gang member who was 22 at the time, pleaded no contest to attempted murder and other charges and was sentenced to 16 years in state prison.
“Captain Miller taught me a valuable lesson,” Jordan said. “It’s not what happens to you, its how you deal with what happens to you. He’s a role model for everybody and he is very valuable to this department.”