Oil Buckles Street and Damages Building

Times Staff Writer

They struck oil Monday at an apartment house in downtown Los Angeles. But residents were not in a celebratory mood.

The black, tar-like substance that oozed into the basement of the three-story Iris Apartments forced authorities to red-tag the 99-year-old building and evacuate its 130 occupants.

The 1200 block of South Olive Street was also shut down when its pavement suddenly began to bulge and the oily liquid bubbled from cracks and manhole covers.

Families grabbed what they could and fled to a parking lot across the street from the brick apartment building and watched as Department of Water and Power, Gas Co. and city sanitation workers huddled with police and firefighters trying to figure out where the steaming-hot liquid was coming from.

By midafternoon South Olive Street seemed ready to deliver a gusher.


“The street looked like it was about to pop. Everybody sort of stepped back and said, ‘Whoa!’ ” said fire Capt. Al Gonzales. “Then we put two and two together.”

Authorities remembered that there’s a petroleum drilling site two blocks from the apartment building. When they checked there, they discovered that workers were injecting high-pressure hot water into old wells to extract leftover crude oil.

When the St. James Oil Co. halted the hot water pumping, the bulge in the street began to subside and the flow of oily liquid quickly slowed.

But residents remained locked out of the 35-unit apartment building, which was constructed in 1907.

They said they first noticed a pungent odor shortly after midnight.

“It smelled like a sewer,” said resident Alejandra Canchola, a 14-year-old ninth-grader.

Neighbor Rufina Urbano, 36, who lives in the building with her husband, Julio Baltazar, and daughter, Crystal Baltazar, 3, was awakened by the smell. “I was afraid there might be an explosion,” she said.

“The smell gave me a headache. So I said let’s go,” said Baltazar, 31, a garment worker who has lived on the building’s third floor for 10 years.

The trio planned to spend Monday night with Urbano’s sister in El Sereno. Others were taken to a Red Cross shelter set up at Santee High School, said Jerome Thierry, a Red Cross representative.

Resident Daniel Bolanes, 13, took only his school backpack and a vibrant green pet iguana named Tiha. He was hoping to get back inside his unit to retrieve a Monopoly board game. “We’re getting bored,” said the seventh-grader.

Daniel said he peeked into the basement before evacuating and saw its floor covered with several inches of the oily substance. “It smelled like the La Brea Tar Pits,” he said.

Fire officials said the building would remain off limits to residents until it could be inspected by city building and safety experts. They said the 160-degree water, injected into the oil wells at a pressure of 1,200 pounds per square inch, might have undermined its foundation.

Fire Department spokesman Ernie Bobadilla said that while the St. James Oil Co. is the only petroleum firm nearby that has a permit to operate, “there are a multitude of old pipelines in the ground here.”

A worker at the company’s leased site at 1325 S. Broadway said he was not authorized to comment on the incident. The firm’s main office in Laguna Hills was closed Monday.

Officials indicated that portions of South Olive Street near the apartment building may have to be excavated to determine the extent of subterranean damage. The oily water could also be seen bubbling through the pavement at the intersection of Olive and Pico Boulevard.