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Four Killed, Two Burned as Fire Triggers Explosion in Gun Store

Times Staff Writer

A fire touched off an explosion that ripped through a Pasadena area gun shop Wednesday morning, killing the two owners and two employees, while critically burning a 3-year-old girl who was carried from the flaming wreckage.

It was not until nightfall that firefighters, using cranes and other heavy equipment, found the bodies of shop co-owner Coleen Fowler, 60, and employee Laura Henderson, 36. Later they found a third body, but it was not immediately known whether it was that of Fowler’s son, Mike, 39, or employee Bob Ellington, about 70, both of whom were missing.

All four were trapped inside the two-story building housing Fowler’s Gun Shop on Rosemead Boulevard, just south of Colorado Boulevard, at about 8:30 a.m., when a small fire broke out in the basement and a sudden massive explosion reverberated for blocks around.

“It doesn’t look good,” said Coleen Fowler’s other son, Brad, as he watched firefighters digging carefully through the smoldering debris during the afternoon in search of the victims. “I’m not sure anyone could survive this.”

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Even before the two bodies were found, fire officials said there was almost no chance that any of the four survived.

The critically injured child was Crystal Fowler, daughter of the missing Mike Fowler. She was rushed to Memorial Hospital of Southern California in Arcadia and then airlifted to Brotman Memorial Hospital in Culver City. A Los Angeles County Fire Department spokesman said she had second and third-degree burns over 35% of her body.

Store manager Brent Hansen told investigators that just before the explosion, he noticed smoke coming from the basement, where Mike Fowler was working.

He said he ran downstairs to help Fowler put out the blaze with a fire extinguisher. After that effort failed, Coleen Fowler handed her granddaughter to him, Hansen said, and ran to telephone the Fire Department.

Moments later, an explosion blew glass from the store more than 50 feet across Rosemead Boulevard.

“I heard this tremendous explosion, and all I saw was glass flying all over the place,” said Dan Sweetman, who works a short distance away. “It sounded like a bomb of some sort--a big boom sound.”

Hansen managed to run outside, carrying the child. After turning her over to paramedics and watching firefighters battle the blaze for more than an hour, while ammunition and gunpowder continued to explode, Hansen was taken to Arcadia Methodist Hospital with first and second-degree burns. He was reported in stable condition.

County Firefighter Jerry O’Donnell suffered minor face burns.

Engulfed Building

Brad Fowler, whose mother and brother together owned and operated the popular gun and fishing equipment center, said he had come from his Orange County home to visit them--only to find flames engulfing the building.

“I saw the smoke, and I said, ‘Oh, my God, what’s happened?’ ” he told reporters.

The store, which had attracted a large and devoted clientele during its 14 years of operation, was not scheduled to open Wednesday until 10 a.m., so several other employees had not yet arrived for work when the fire broke out in the basement.

Wednesday night, a county fire spokesman said it was possible a fifth victim had been trapped in the store, but no name was released.

Fire officials said the cause of the blaze was not yet known.

Leonard Knolhoff, a gun shop employee who saw the fire from his car as he drove to work, said the building was remodeled and fireproofed three years ago. He said 100 pounds of gunpowder were stored in the basement in a heavily fortified metal case.

Repair Weapons

Electrical equipment used to repair guns, which could have been the source of a spark, was far removed from the gunpowder, he said.

Knolhoff said the contents of the building, including an extensive collection of antique Civil War guns, fishing equipment and hundreds of handguns and shotguns, were worth about $2 million.

Twelve engine companies and more than 45 firefighters from the county battled the blaze for more than three hours, before bringing it under control.


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