LA County firefighter who died in smothered house fire had methamphetamine in his system, coroner says

Firefighters wave to a fire truck carrying the cremated ashes of Los Angeles County firefighter Jonathan Flagler before a memorial service at Cottonwood Church in Los Alamitos on January 21. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)

A Los Angeles County firefighter who died fighting a house fire in Rancho Palos Verdes this year suffocated after his breathing apparatus air tank emptied, according to a coroner’s report released this week .

Jonathan Flagler, 47, had methamphetamine in his system and also tested positive for coronavirus, which may have been a factor in his death, the medical examiner’s report concluded.

January 6, Fire Station 83 responded to a house fire in Rancho Palos Verdes around 2 a.m. with Flagler, a 21-year-old veteran firefighter, part of the response. At 2:10 a.m. he made a call on the radio that his breathing apparatus was empty, according to an investigation report. He then signaled his emergency trigger on his radio.

After firefighters found Flagler in the house, his co-workers gave him CPR in the front yard. He was taken to Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead at 3:26 a.m.

Flagler served 19 years with the Vernon Fire Department before joining the LA County Fire Department. He is survived by his wife, Jenny, and two teenage sons.

The coroner’s report lists cardiopulmonary arrest due to suffocation as the cause of Flagler’s death, with the effects of methamphetamine and the coronavirus being possible contributing factors but not related to the immediate cause of death.

The medical examiner said Flagler had third-degree burns to his head, arms, hand and leg. He had soot in his airways and the carbon monoxide level in his blood was 20%.

Although Flagler tested positive for the coronavirus, he had no inflammation in his lung tissue. There was swelling in his trachea and at the back of his throat, according to the report.

“Respiratory effects cannot be ruled out as a possible contributing factor to death,” Assistant Medical Examiner Juan Carrillo wrote in the report.

The presence of methamphetamine may also have played a role, as the drug can increase heart rate and blood pressure, trigger an irregular heartbeat and cause sudden death, according to the report.

“Its effects in this death cannot be ruled out,” Carrillo wrote.

In a statement, the LA County Fire Department said it was reviewing the report.

“Firefighter Flagler’s sacrifice and memory will not be forgotten; he remains a respected fallen hero to our fire department and county family,” the department said.

Any member of the fire department who needs help with substance abuse issues will have access to peer support staff, the department said.

Flagler’s family plans to file a lawsuit over his workplace death.

“Our trial will establish that the tragic death of Los Angeles County firefighter Jonathan Flagler was caused when on-scene commanders failed to track firefighters inside the burning residence, maintain contact radio with these firefighters and quickly rescue Jonathan,” attorney Thomas said. Johnston said in a statement.

For memory:
3:16 p.m. April 15, 2022: A previous version of this article stated that the Flagler family planned to file a lawsuit against Los Angeles County. A lawyer representing the family said the defendants in their trial have yet to be determined.

An earlier version indicated that an oxygen tank was used. It has been upgraded to an air tank in a breathing apparatus.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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