LOS ANGELES — Just two days after helping to rescue police Officer James Veenstra, severely wounded in a Winnetka shootout that left a fellow officer and four other people dead, firefighter/paramedic Hector Cazar was experiencing deja vu.
The Los Angeles Fire Department medico found himself at a Winnetka intersection Saturday morning helping another Los Angeles Police Department officer. The 25-year-old woman was trapped in her patrol car after a collision with another vehicle.
And as in the harrowing minutes when gunman Edwin Rivera, 20 — who had killed his father and two brothers — opened fire on police early Thursday morning, Cazar, who has an aversion to firearms, found himself trying to safely remove a gun to help an injured officer.
“I had a flashback, like what we did with Veenstra,” said Cazar, 34.
On Friday, LAPD Chief William Bratton had high praise for the efforts of West Valley police officers, as well as firefighters, who Bratton said helped remove Officers Randal Simmons and Veenstra from the carnage “even as gunshots continued to be exchanged.”
Bratton offered his thanks in person while back at the crime scene recently, said Los Angeles Fire Department Battalion Chief John Duca, who had been on the scene Thursday.
In the aftermath of the shooting, Duca marveled at how well the Special Weapons and Tactics team, other local police and firefighters worked together once things began to go terribly wrong.
“It was like poetry,” he said. “Everything came together perfectly, and the firefighters and the police officers: You couldn’t script it better to have these people work together better than what occurred.”
Details are emerging of some of the heroism. Telling the story Saturday of the rescue of the officers, Cazar at times fought back tears.
As SWAT officers prepared to surprise Rivera, who police believed might be holding live hostages he planned to kill, two ambulances and a fire engine were parked a short block away, ready to assist.
Cazar sat at the wheel of the ambulance positioned to go in first. His partner was sitting next to him, with two police officers in the back, ready to offer covering gunfire if necessary. The other ambulance, similarly fortified, would come follow immediately.
Shortly after sounds of flash-bang grenades and gunfire filled the air about 12:30 a.m., Cazar and the others were ordered: “Go, go, go!”
Cazar said he couldn’t believe what he saw in front of the burning house on Welby Way: two of the LAPD’s elite SWAT officers down on the ground, severely wounded.
“I’m thinking we’re going to find a dead suspect and several dead family members,” Cazar said.
The two ambulance crews jumped out of their rigs and raced into the front yard. Cazar was led by officers to Veenstra, who sat on the ground, with blood pouring from his face.
Surrounded by officers with weapons pointed toward the house, Cazar heard someone near Veenstra yelling, “He’s choking, he’s choking!”
Veenstra was loaded onto a gurney, as other emergency personnel did the same for Simmons, and both were quickly whisked away in the ambulances.
The rescue took about three minutes, Cazar said. But there was still a five-minute ride, under police escort, to Northridge Hospital Medical Center’s trauma unit.
With another firefighter now at the wheel, Cazar was working on Veenstra in the back of the ambulance, as were Cazar’s partner and a young LAPD police officer who, Cazar said, did remarkable work, helping clear the blood from the wounded officer’s throat so he could breathe.
At the hospital, after it became clear that Simmons had lost his life, Cazar said the sight of police officers crying is one he won’t soon forget.
“The guys with the guns aren’t supposed to get teary-eyed,” Cazar said.
Thinking of his own wife and kids, Cazar was reminded of the “unwritten rule” for cops and firefighters — to treat each day on the job as if it might be your last.
On Saturday morning, after delivering the injured female officer to Northridge Hospital Medical Center, where she was listed in stable condition, Cazar ran into a couple of his bosses, who were working on the Fire Department’s investigation of Thursday’s gunbattle.
They arranged for him to visit Veenstra, recuperating there after surgery to repair his shattered jaw. Veenstra’s wife, LAPD Capt. Michelle Veenstra, repeatedly told him she was grateful to him, Cazar said — “very, very grateful.” And the wounded officer reached for his hand.
“He shook my hand 10 times. He’s a good guy,” said Cazar, choking back tears. “I’m glad he’s doing much better.”
I just feel bad for the other guy.”
HOW TO DONATE
Trust funds have been established to support LAPD Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team Officers Randal Simmons and James Veenstra.
The funds have been established in both their names through the Los Angeles Police Federal Credit Union. To make a donation, go to: lapfcu.org and click on the red square Hedd “LAPFCU Community Corner.”
Donations also can be mailed to:
Blue Ribbon Trust Fund/Officer Randal Simmons
Acct. 2030077-product code S4.12
16150 Sherman Way
Van Nuys, CA 91410
Blue Ribbon Trust Fund/Officer James Veenstra
Acct. 2030077-product code S4.13
16150 Sherman Way
Van Nuys, CA 91410
Contributions in their honor also can be made to:
Los AngelesPolice Memorial Foundation
Los AngelesPolice Foundation