Three firefighters with the Los Angeles Fire Department have been released from a hospital, while eight others remain hospitalized with injuries suffered in an explosion while battling a fire at a one-story business in the Toy District of downtown Los Angeles.
Two firefighters are in critical, but stable condition. A 12th firefighter was treated and released from an emergency room Saturday for a minor extremity injury, said Nicholas Prange of the LAFD.
A “significant explosion” happened at 6:30 p.m. Saturday and shook the neighborhood around 327 East Boyd St., a one-story business called Smoke Tokes Warehouse Distributor, “a supplier for those who make butane honey oil,” according to LAFD Capt. Erik Scott.
The fire was initially reported at 6:26 p.m. Shortly after firefighters arrived and began an offensive battle, crews entered and were inside when there was an explosion and multiple buildings became involved, Scott said.
“There was a significant explosion that caused a mayday report,” Scott explained. “This was upgraded to a major emergency category.”
Some of the 11 firefighters suffered “obvious damage and burns” in the explosion and were taken to County USC Medical Center, he said.
Dr. Marc Eckstein, medical director for LAFD and a physician at the center, said they all arrived at the hospital awake and alert, but two firefighters were put on ventilators due to smoke inhalation and four were sent to the intensive care unit for burns. Most of the burns, he said, were on their upper extremities.
Mayor Eric Garcetti said, “The good news is that everybody is going to make it,” but he added, “We have a lot of firefighters who are shaken up.”
LAFD Chief Ralph M. Terrazas said the mayday call, which is used only when a firefighter is “down, missing or trapped,” was “the kind of call I always dread.”
He said the injured men, who were from Engine No. 9, realized something was wrong when they were inside the building but could not escape in time to avoid the blast. Their fire engine parked outside was charred, and the aerial ladder was damaged — with eyewitnesses saying firefighters on that ladder climbed down with their coats on fire.
Knowing that some were injured, Terrazas said many other firefighters from the scene were traumatized by the event.
“When one of your own is injured … you can imagine the amount of mental stress,” he said.
Multiple ambulances and fire companies were called to the scene, with more than 230 firefighters responding and establishing a treatment area just east of the building. The fire, which spread from the narrow one-story building where it originated to neighboring businesses, was knocked down at 8:08 p.m.
“This has been a very difficult situation,” Scott said, noting that he would provide the community with updates as soon as possible.
The cause of the fire “is of paramount concern,” Scott said. It was under investigation.
When Kevon Wright first saw smoke, the 50-year-old man who lives in a self-made shanty on Boyd Street, figured he better collect a few possessions, in case things got out of hand.
“I just grabbed my laptop, because it started getting really smoky in there,” he said. “By the time I got down towards Maple (Street) it was unbearable.”
He paused on the east side of Los Angeles Street to look toward the blaze, which he said seemed to be coming from the direction of the Green Buddha vape shop, where he’s shopped for lighters before.
“I heard a big explosion,” he said. “It was pretty loud. Like a big airplane.”
When Wright saw people running away from the site he decided to join them.
A couple hours later he was left to figure out what he should do, now temporarily made homeless a second time over.
“A lot of things are closed down right now, so I don’t really have that many options,” he said, referring to the measures put in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19. “I’m just trying to figure things out — with the coronavirus going on — what’s the next step, how long this is going to continue.”
Wright said he was thinking about trying to get into a sober living residence by presenting himself to a hospital, claiming mental health issues.
“I might pull a 51-50, I don’t know,” he said, referring to the state legal code that allows authorities to commit patients to facilities due to signs of a mental illness that makes them a danger to themselves or others.
Earl King, a 64-year-old man who lives in an alley a block away from the building that went up in flames, said at first the smoke was so minor he thought it was just a trash can fire.
“The smoke was getting bigger,” he said. ”And then all the sudden there was a big ‘ole popping sound…POP, POP, POP…That’s when, BOOM! And then we can feel it — you know that little vibration.”
The sound reminded him of a large train chugging right towards him, he said.
“It scared the hell outta me,” he said. “And then when we looked up we seen all the smoke, and the ashes coming down with fire on ’em…. It was no joke. It was no joke.”
He said the blaze seemed to be in a complex that includes a vape shop warehouse where he’s worked as a day laborer before.
“We be doin’ their containers,” he said. “You know, unload their truck.”
Officials have said firefighters noticed butane cylinders outside the facility, but have not yet confirmed they were involved in the blast.
King said when he was working in the building he noticed plenty of flammable materials.
“A lot of those warehouses have chemicals, you know the stuff, like butane for lighters, or whatever,” he said.
King said he was cold and would wait to be allowed back to his shelter, so he could put a coat on.
Misael Rojas, 24, was also prevented from returning to his residence in the area.
He’d been out picking up El Salvadorian bread at the time of the blast.
“It’s been kinda hectic,” he said. “You live right here and you can’t even go inside your home.”
Rojas said it wasn’t the first time there’d been a fire in the vicinity, describing a recent blaze involving a smoke shop, but he said he wasn’t too concerned for his safety.
“– as long as it doesn’t affect us, or affect the apartments on this side,” he said. “It’s still a thing to be aware of, because you never know what could happen.”
Roger Serrano, a 19-year-old cadet firefighter, based out of Station 61, heard the call on his radio while at another fire nearby — at Main Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
”There was heavy smoke showing, fire from the roof; there was two firefighters injured,” he said. ”And then they bumped it up to six firefighters, and from there they bumped it up to 10.”
Fellow cadet 29-year-old Ramon Vara, with Station 69, had been with Serrano at the first fire. But he knew they both had to rush to the new call.
“When we hear firefighters are down, we have to drop everything, and focus,” he said. “We have to find out where they fell, what spot they fell, get the hose, and put that fire out — to get towards that firefighter.”
Serrano was tasked with directing traffic.
Vara started unspooling hoses and connecting trucks to hydrants.
“It’s actually good experience,” Vara said. “Especially helping out people. That’s the main thing with the job.”
It was a wake up call about the dangers of the job, though, he said.
“Imagine if we lose those firefighters — they woulda passed on or something like that — it was gonna be hard for us,” he said. “Especially for the families. They have kids, moms, dads — all that.”
“My thing is only on the firefighters,” he said. “That’s the only thing I’m thinking about right now.”
Both cadets said the incident will serve to fuel their drive to become more active in fighting fires, as they develop their skills, in order to better assist in similar emergencies in the future.