OJAI : Gas Explosion at Center Injures Man

A fiery explosion, apparently caused by a natural gas leak, rocked the Arcade shopping center in downtown Ojai on Thursday, ripping the roof off a storage building and seriously injuring a Meiners Oaks man.

David Willis, 48, was treated at Ojai Valley Hospital and transported to the burn center at Sherman Oaks Hospital by ambulance. A Sherman Oaks spokeswoman said he was in fair condition with second-degree burns covering 20% of his face and hands.

According to witnesses, Willis had gone into the storage room to retrieve a vacuum cleaner when the blast occurred about 1 p.m. in the back of commercial buildings in the 300 block of East Matilija Street, said Capt. Bob Howell of the Ojai Fire Department.

Willis is the bookkeeper and general manager of Human Arts, a nearby arts and crafts store, which uses storage space and a restroom housed in a temporary building adjoining Arcade stores, Howell said.

The owners of Human Arts were out of town, said John Farnham, who owns the building and several others in the shopping district. Farnham estimated that about $7,000 worth of porcelain, pottery and artwork in the storage room was damaged.

"I thought it was an earthquake," said Lisa Clark, owner of Busy Babes Beauty Supply & Salon, which adjoins the storage room. She called for help after she ran out to find Willis with his hair and sweater burned, she said.

Marcia A. Secord, an area manager for Southern California Gas Co., said the explosion might have been ignited by a spark from an electric switch when Willis tried to turn on the light.

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