Heche, 53, died from smoke inhalation and burns, according to a coroner’s report that ruled her death an accident. Heche was in a coma for a week before being pronounced brain dead and taken off life support on Aug. 14 after a compatible organ recipient was found.
Records obtained by NBC Los Angeles revealed that firefighters at the scene of the crash were initially confused about whether there was someone in the car that needed saving. The time-stamped recordings show that it took over 45 minutes for Heche to be rescued from her burning vehicle.
It took firefighters at least 20 minutes to access Heche’s car and determine someone was inside, and at least another 20 minutes to pull the car out from the burning building to rescue her, the records showed.
“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,” Deputy Fire Chief Richard Fields told NBC Los Angeles.
Fields said that it was “difficult for us to just see each other on the inside of the working structure fire.”
Timeline of events
According to the fire department, Heche crashed her car into a home in Mar Vista, Los Angeles around 10:56 a.m. The first fire engine arrived at the scene at 11:01 a.m., records show.
Within seconds, dispatchers relayed a report that someone was trapped in the car within the burning house.
“There is a person stuck inside the vehicle,” the dispatcher said, according to recordings of the fire department’s radio transmissions.
When paramedics arrived, firefighters at the scene directed them to treat a woman they had found within the home. Fields told NBC Los Angeles that the patient turned out to be a resident of the house, not the driver of the car.
At 11:18 a.m. one firefighter radioed that no one else was inside the burning home.
“We do have no patients at this time,” the firefighter said, according to the recordings.
After four minutes of overlapping radio chatter amongst the firefighters inside, one of the incident commanders asked about the driver again.
“Let me clear this up — so, you do have a patient in the car?” the incident commander said at 11:22 a.m.
At 11:25 a.m., a firefighter speaking through an oxygen mask announced that he had found the driver.
“We have identified one patient, inaccessible at this time. He’s pushed up against the floorboard!” the firefighter said.
Fields told NBC Los Angeles that it was difficult to spot Heche in the car because she had collapsed below the front seats.
“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 firefighters confirmed Heche was alive, they used a heavy-duty tow truck to pull the car out of the inferno, with Heche still inside. She was removed from the vehicle around 11:49 a.m., records show.
“We have one patient in the auto, being assessed, about to be loaded up on the gurney for transport,” a firefighter radioed.
Heche was transported to Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center for treatment before being transported to Grossman Burn Center at West Hills Hospital for specialized care. She never regained consciousness after slipping into a coma and her death certificate states that she was pronounced dead on Aug. 11.
A full autopsy report into Heche’s death is still being completed, the Los Angeles coroner’s office said.
Firefighters made ‘best effort’
Firefighters say that they wouldn’t have been able to reach Heche any quicker even if there had been no confusion about whether someone needed saving.
An after-action presentation prepared for fire department staff members found that it took 30 minutes to fight the fire to the point where responders could have made a rescue, NBC Los Angeles reported. So even if Heche’s presence had been confirmed immediately, firefighters likely wouldn’t have responded differently.
“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,” he said.
Spokespeople for Heche and her son Homer Laffoon both declined to comment on the situation.
Heche, who starred in the movies Donnie Brasco, Wag The Dog and I Know What You Did Last Summer, was part of a groundbreaking same-sex couple in the 1990s when she dated comedian and actor Ellen DeGeneres. Against the wishes of her studio, Heche came out publicly at the 1997 red carpet premiere for the disaster flick Volcano, taking DeGeneres along as her date.
The pair were together for more than three years before Heche ended the relationship.
Heche was the winner of a Daytime Emmy Award in 1991 for her roles as identical twin sisters in the NBC soap opera Another World. Heche also starred in the 1998 adventure comedy Six Days Seven Nights with Harrison Ford and played alongside Demi Moore and Cher in the HBO TV movie If These Walls Could Talk.
Later in her career, Heche starred as a senior member of the Defense Intelligence Agency in the NBC TV series The Brave and appeared on the competition show Dancing With The Stars in late 2020.
— with files from Reuters
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