At least 23 people were injured and two others were reported missing Sunday when a mysterious gas explosion shattered walls and windows of a discount clothing store in the Fairfax District.
Fires begun by the explosion continued to burn--and spread--as the night hours passed, and a spokesman for the Southern California Gas Company said it was possible that the flames were fueled by gas from a long-abandoned oil field in the vicinity.
The injured were taken by ambulance to hospitals in the vicinity, where two were reported in critical condition, including one man who had second- and third-degree burns over 70% of his body.
Two employees of the Ross Dress for Less Store, in the 6200 block of West 3rd Street, could not be accounted for, and firefighters spent five hours searching for them in the tangle of charred clothing, smashed fixtures and broken wiring that remained inside the building.
New Explosions Occur
The searchers were temporarily driven from the building at 9 p.m., when two smaller explosions under the structure opened fiery cracks in the earth nearby, but they returned 30 minutes later.
Meanwhile, gas continued to seep to the surface--and burst into flame--in a steady progression across the parking lot and to the edge of 3rd Street. By late evening, seepage of gas in the area across the street from the store had become so concentrated that the command post was relocated another 200 feet to the north.
No further damage was attributed to the later explosions. Buildings and businesses in a two-block area surrounding the site of the explosion had already been evacuated, while damage-control crews cleaned debris from sidewalks and streets and boarded up shattered windows for the night.
Cause of the blasts was not immediately known.
Los Angeles City Fire Department spokesman Jim Wells said they were originally attributed to a buildup of natural gas somewhere in the basement of the store which is located across from the Farmer's Market, not far from CBS Television City.
But a spokesman for the Southern California Gas Co. later cast doubt on this, saying a buildup of sewer gas or perhaps an underground gasoline leak similar to the one reported in West Hollywood last week might be responsible.
In any case, authorities agreed that it was apparently impossible to control the supply of gas feeding the flames that continued to spurt from cracks in the earth and from various parts of the smashed store building.
The first blast occurred at 4:47 p.m., and Chris Moore, a security guard who lives a block from the store, said it interrupted his afternoon's television viewing.
'Like an Earthquake'
"It was almost like an earthquake," he said. "Windows and everything was shaking. I looked outside and I could see debris two or three hundred feet up in the air. I called the Fire Department. . . ."
In all, 17 city fire companies were dispatched, along with paramedics and ambulances. All were needed.
Paramedics set up shop in the parking lot outside the store, examining possible victims and sending the most seriously injured to hospitals.
"Two of the people we sent to Cedars-Sinai (Medical Center) were in rough shape," said paramedic John Quinn. "One had bad lacerations on his face--a man--and the other--a woman--had second-degree burns on her face and arms.
70% of Body Burned
"One guy who went to the burn ward at Brotman (Medical Center) had 70% of his body covered with second- and third-degree burns, and I understand we have another who's in critical condition, too. . . ."
Hospital authorities confirmed this, and said the condition of three other patients was considered serious. In all, Wells said 23 patients were transported to hospitals, though several people who suffered only minor injuries simply walked away after receiving first-aid treatment at the scene.
The shattered glass, the cracked stucco--and the continuing gas fires--remained to attest to the ferocity of the incident.
"It was a mess," said Harold Conkling, 33, as he stood on the edge of the parking lot sadly surveying the remains of his 1984 Cadillac, left singed and sitting on four flat tires by the blast and fire.
Came Out a Minute Before
"I don't mind the car too much, it was insured," he said. "And I don't care about being stuck here, either. I can call a cab or get a friend to pick me up.
"But I had come out of that building just a minute before it went boom--and I'm wondering just how much of a lifetime's supply of good luck I used up here?"
Traffic was snarled for blocks in the vicinity of the busy 3rd Street and Fairfax Avenue intersection, and crowds of onlookers added to the problems of police.
No estimate of damage was offered pending a survey of the area, but Wells said it should be "in the millions."
Automobiles in the parking lot were wrecked--their windows cracked and their paint blistered--by the explosion and fire, and the shock wave from the blast smashed windows as far as three blocks away.
Also severely damaged were a beauty shop, bank, cafeteria, fish market, variety store and paint store nearby.
Most restaurants in the area, which had just begun their evening rush, tried at first to continue to operate but then, one by one, quietly closed for the night as hours passed and the situation remained unchanged.
Search for Other Victims
Firefighters used a bulldozer to help with the job of searching out other possible victims inside the building, and a helicopter hovered overhead. Then the Fire Department ordered the entire area surrounding the store evacuated.
Wells explained that a buildup of gas fumes had been detected in the basement of the K Mart discount store nearby, and that further blasts might be expected unless the source of the deadly fumes could be located.
Special ventilating equipment shielded against electrical sparks was brought in to lessen the danger of new explosions and members of the Los Angeles County Fire Department's hazardous materials squad monitored the air with special equipment.
Police finally managed to move the crowd across the street to relative safety as night fell, but there were still plenty of spectators on hand when the two smaller blasts shook the ground at about 9 p.m., opening new cracks in the parking lot. The cracks promptly spouted columns of flame, and firefighters evacuated the store building and the entire parking lot area.
"Until we can figure out where the fumes are coming from--and stop them--it's just too dangerous to send anyone back in there," a Fire Department spokesman said.
But half an hour later, with no answers to those questions immediately apparent, the search crews were back at work.
Also contributing to this story were Times staff writers Ted Thackrey Jr., Janet Rae-Dupree, Kay Mills and Nieson Himmel.