Most Stores in Blast Area Will Reopen Today

Times Staff Writers

Most stores in the blast-shaken Fairfax District will be open again today for the first time in three days--but a Los Angeles Fire Department spokesman said he could not guarantee that there would be no more gas explosions of the kind that shattered one building and forced evacuation of 160 others Sunday.

"We believe it is safe," City Deputy Fire Chief Don Anthony said in a Wednesday afternoon meeting with merchants, "and we will maintain adequate police and fire protection in this area.

"But there is no way that we can say such a thing will never happen again. We simply cannot give any such assurance. . . ."

Nonetheless, owners and employees of most of the shops and stores in the four-square-block evacuation zone returned to their hastily abandoned premises Wednesday afternoon to make ready for this morning's business.

But there were exceptions:

- The Ross Dress for Less discount clothing store in the 6200 block of West 3rd Street will remain closed, and Fire Department Inspector Ed Reed said an eight-foot chain link fence will be built today around the store and its parking lot.

The Sunday afternoon explosion demolished the building, injured at least 20 people and left methane-fed fires leaping from countless cracks in the earth. Ross stores spokesman David Goldman said no decision has been made concerning possible reconstruction or reopening of the store, which is part of a large chain based in San Francisco.

- The K mart building, across Ogden Drive from the blast site, also will remain closed due to continued high concentrations of methane gas, as will the Gilmore Bank and a small plant nursery across 3rd Street from the shattered clothing store.

- A half-mile stretch of 3rd Street, from Gardner Street to Fairfax Avenue, will remain closed to through traffic, although access from 3rd Street to parking lots of the Farmers Market, Town and Country and Park La Brea shopping centers will be permitted, according to police.

The Hancock Park branch library will reopen, however, authorities said, as will the Hancock Park Elementary School.

The decision to allow the reopenings came, Anthony said, when monitors installed at various points around the blast area consistently showed safe levels of methane gas seepage from the ground.

Flames Flicker

As if in confirmation of this, the vent flare atop a well intended to help relieve underground gas pressure in the vicinity refused to stay lighted Wednesday afternoon.

Various technical delays had forced postponement of the flare lighting, which was originally scheduled for Tuesday afternoon. When the flame was finally touched off at 3:17 p.m. Wednesday, it burned feebly--almost invisibly--for less than 10 minutes, and then winked out.

Relighted, it continued to flicker, went out again, was relighted, went out . . . and continued that way as the hours passed.

"Not enough gas pressure," Reed said. "For some reason or other, the gas stratum that is causing all the trouble seems to give us pressure than can vary from 27 psi (pounds per square inch) to nothing at all. Right now, it's down to about five psi, and every stray wind that passes blows it out. . . ."

Finally, just before 7 p.m., authorities gave up.

"Let it stay out," fire Battalion Chief Tom Stiers said. "We'll keep monitoring the area and we can light it again if the gas pressure increases, but right now it's simply not possible."

The cause of the variations in pressure, and much else concerning the buildup of methane under the Fairfax District, remained a mystery.

Source in Question

Richard Manuel, a state Division of Oil and Gas operating engineer, said the gas, now attributed by most authorities to the abandoned oil field that underlies the area, may have come from somewhere else after all.

"Methane built up in a stratum of sand . . . could just as well be coming from a source a mile away from here," he said.

George Jefferson, geologist and assistant curator of the Los Angeles County Page Museum in nearby Hancock Park agreed, and speculated that the task of preventing future disasters may be just beginning.

If the leaking gas is from seepage caused by natural shifts in the land, venting wells such as the one at the blast site might release enough gas to reduce or eliminate the hazard, Jefferson said, "unless the source is an abandoned well. If that's the case, they'll just have to go in and close that well off."

Gas Could Escape

At least one of the abandoned wells is located near the site of the explosion, he continued. That well, if flawed or improperly capped when shut down, could have allowed gas to intrude into natural rock formations that trap underground methane, and provide a conduit for the gas to rise to the surface.

"It must be coming up along some sort of artificial conduit like an oil well pipe," Jefferson said. "I can't see it concentrated in one spot enough to do that kind of damage without some kind of puncture or penetration into the (rock) trap" that normally contains underground gas.

In any case, he concluded, the first step would be to pinpoint the source.

Merchants in the area had slightly different priorities:

Sandy Hendeles, who operates a children's clothing store in the Park La Brea shopping center, said she was pleased to hear that she would be able to reopen her doors. She estimated her loss of business at $1,500 a day--but expected to begin with a "smoke damage" sale.

'We'll Take a Loss'

"Nobody is going to pay $50 to $75 for smoke-damaged clothes," she sighed. "We'll take the loss."

Greeting card store owner Aytan Stromberg is glad to be allowed to reopen, too.

"I have a lot of Easter and Passover cards," he said. "If I don't sell them in the next day or two, it's wait 'til next year. People don't mail cards the night before a holiday--they mail them a week ahead. . . ."

But Etty Arnell, who with her husband has a jewelry store near the closed K mart, foresees a bleak future.

"It's great we're opening," she said, "but safety is a big factor. Many of our customers are senior citizens. . . . They don't come in if they think it's not safe."

"And if the K mart stays closed, the people won't come, either," said her neighbor, Ida Chernin, who operates a woman's clothing store.

More Optimistic

John Alcalde, who runs an optical shop in the area, was more optimistic.

"The people will be back," he said. "You got to roll with the flow. People die on the freeway but the freeways are still full. Nobody died here. They'll be back."

City Councilman John Ferraro, whose 4th District includes the Fairfax area, agreed with Alcalde.

"Visitors still want to see Farmers Market," he said. "They'll still come here. They'll see what it's like--and they'll come."

Times staff writers Sandy Banks, Jerry Belcher, Frank Clifford and Leonard Greenwood also contributed to this story.

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