Editor's Note: Some may find the details of this report disturbing.
Firefighters sent to the scene of a car crash and house fire in Mar Vista Aug. 5, that ultimately claimed the life of actor Anne Heche, were unable to begin lifesaving efforts for about 45 minutes after they first arrived at the scene, according to LA City Fire Department records and time-stamped recordings of radio communications.
The recordings, provided by LAFD to the NBC4 I-Team under the California Public Records Act, reveal firefighters couldn’t get access to her car for at least 20 minutes, and it took at least another 20 minutes to pull the car out of the burning building in order to rescue Heche.
“Given the heavy fire and smoke conditions, it wasn't that you could clearly see into the vehicle or clearly be able to access it,” LAFD Deputy Chief Richard Fields told the I-Team.
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“Heavy smoke conditions, heavy fire conditions, which makes it very difficult for us to just see each other on the inside of a working structure fire,” he said.
According to the recordings, the first LAFD engine arrived at the scene at 11:01 a.m., and within seconds dispatchers radioed a report that there was a person trapped in the car that had crashed into the house.
“There is a person stuck inside the vehicle,” the dispatcher said.
Paramedics were directed to immediately treat a woman firefighters found in the home, but it’s now clear that was the person who lived there, not the driver of the car.
“The patient that was identified initially, was the person that was in the home,” Fields said.
At 11:18 a.m. one of the firefighters working on the fire radioed that there wasn’t anyone else inside.
“We do have no patients at this time,” the firefighter said.
Four minutes later, at 11:22 a.m., after overlapping radio messages from firefighters inside, one of the incident commanders began to ask again about the driver.
“Let me clear this up, so – you do have a patient in the car?,” they said over the radio.
At 11:25 a.m. a firefighter who can be heard speaking through an oxygen mask replied and said he had found the driver.
“We have identified one patient, inaccessible at this time, he’s pushed up against the floorboard!”
Deputy Chief Fields said the patient, now known to be Heche, had collapsed below the front seats of her Mini Cooper.
“I will say that that where the person was in the vehicle was not in the driver's seat, but on the floorboard of the passenger seat,” he said.
Once she was found and confirmed to be alive, firefighters used a heavy duty tow truck to pull the car – with Heche still inside – out of the smoldering home. She was pulled from the wreckage around 11:49 a.m.
“We have one patient in the auto, being assessed, about to be loaded up on the gurney for transport,” a firefighter reported over the radio.
Heche was treated first at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center before being transferred for specialized care to the Grossman Burn Center at West Hills Hospital.
She died 7 days later of inhalation and thermal injuries, according to a death certificate.
The LA County Coroner’s Office said its death investigation has not been finalized and it could not offer more specific information on the nature or cause of the inhalation injuries.
The LAFD said that even if Heche’s presence in the wrecked car had been confirmed immediately it is unlikely firefighters would have responded differently.
An after-action presentation prepared for LAFD staff noted that it took 30 minutes to fight the fire to the point where a rescue could be made.
“I would imagine, just based on some of the very experienced officers that were initiating the firefight, that they made the best effort they could to try to identify that someone was in the vehicle,” Fields said.
“Our firefighters were doing everything.”