L.A. County firefighter suffocated, had meth in system, coroner says

A Los Angeles County firefighter who died battling a Ranchos Palos Verdes house fire this year suffocated after his oxygen tank ran empty, according to a coroner’s report released this week.

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

On Jan. 6, Fire Station 83 responded to a house fire in Ranchos Palos Verdes around 2 a.m. with Flagler, a 21-year veteran firefighter, part of the response. By 2:10 a.m., he put out a call over the radio that his oxygen tank was empty, according to an investigation report. He then signaled his emergency trigger on his radio.

After firefighters found Flagler in the home, his colleagues gave him CPR in the frontyard. He was taken to Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead at 3:26 a.m.

Flagler served for 19 years with the Vernon Fire Department before he moved to the L.A. 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 as possible contributing factors but not related to the immediate cause of death.

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

Though Flagler tested positive for the coronavirus, he did not have inflammation in his lung tissue. There was swelling in his trachea and at the back of his throat, according to the report.

“The effects on the airway cannot be excluded as a possible contributing factor to death,” Deputy Medical Examiner Juan Carrillo wrote in the report.

The presence of methamphetamine could also have played a role, because 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 excluded,” Carrillo wrote.

In a statement, the L.A. County Fire Department said it is reviewing the report.

“Fire Fighter Flagler’s sacrifice and memory will not be forgotten; he remains a respected fallen hero of our Fire Department and county family,” the department said.

Any Fire Department member in need of support for substance abuse issues will have access to peer support personnel, the department said.

Flagler’s family plans to file a lawsuit against the county over his death on the job.

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

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