An investigation is underway Monday to determine if criminal conduct was involved in a fiery explosion in the downtown Los Angeles Toy District that injured a dozen firefighters and damaged buildings and fire equipment.
Los Angeles Fire Department’s arson and counter-terrorism unit, the criminal conspiracy section of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Major Crimes Division and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are involved in the investigation.
“The National Response Team … along with ATF special agents from the Los Angeles Field Division, were activated today to join the investigation of the fire,” the ATF said in a statement released Monday morning. “The NRT callout will have experts arriving today and they will begin processing the scene.”
The NRT was activated at the request of the Los Angeles city officials, according to ATF.
“ATF is committed to working alongside Los Angeles Fire Department to determine the origin and cause of this fire that tragically injured firefighters,” said Monique Villegas, special agent in charge of ATF’s Los Angeles Field Division “ATF will provide whatever resources are necessary to thoroughly investigate and provide answers.”
Carbon dioxide and butane canisters were found inside the building but it’s unknown if they contributed to the explosion, LAFD spokesman Nicholas Prange told City News Service.
“The investigation is in its preliminary stage right now,” he said. “So there are no details that can be reported yet.”
The explosion happened about 6:30 p.m. Saturday while firefighters responded to the initial call of a fire in a single-story building at 327 Boyd St., between East Third and Fourth streets, housing a business called Smoke Tokes Warehouse Distributor, “a supplier for those who make butane honey oil,” according to LAFD Capt. Erik Scott.
Firefighters had begun an offensive battle inside the building 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, Scott said.
Three firefighters with the Los Angeles Fire Department were released from the hospital Sunday, while eight others remained hospitalized, Prange said.
Two firefighters were listed in critical, but stable condition. A 12th firefighter was treated and released from an emergency room Saturday for a minor extremity injury, Prange said.
Dr. Marc Eckstein, medical director for LAFD and a physician at County-USC, 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, Eckstein said, were on their upper extremities.
On Sunday, the two firefighters were removed from ventilators, but remained in intensive care, Prange said.
Mayor Eric Garcetti, at a briefing that night, said: “The good news is that everybody is going to make it,” but 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.
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.
The cause of the fire “is of paramount concern,” Scott said.
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 toward 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.”
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.
Police described the area where the explosive fire occurred as “Bong Row” because of a large number of cannabis, CBD and pipe businesses.