Explosion at South Los Angeles plant injures owner, kills man

A botched attempt to tamper with a gas meter resulted in a massive explosion at a South Los Angeles building Friday morning, killing one man and severely injuring another, authorities said.

Gas service was cut off Thursday at JL Spray after the metal-coating business failed to pay its monthly bill, Southern California Gas Co. spokesman Dennis Lord said. Sometime after that, the meter outside the plant was manipulated so gas bypassed the regulator and flowed into the building at a powerful rate.

Lord said it was likely that the meter was bypassed so the company could stay in business. But, he said, “the way he piped it up it was straight street pressure right into the place.”

Investigators believe the building exploded when workers turned on their machinery early Friday, Los Angeles Fire Department Capt. Steve Ruda said.

Firefighters arrived at the building, at 911 E. 59th St., about 6:45 a.m. Two men were found at the scene, Ruda said.

The first victim had been electrocuted as he entered a truck parked just outside the building. Investigators said the blast caused an electrical wire to fall on top of the truck. The man was taken to California Hospital Medical Center downtown, where he was pronounced dead, Ruda said. The man’s name has not been released. John Kades of the Los Angeles County coroner’s office described the victim as about 35 years of age.

The second victim, identified by a JL Spray employee as Jaime Lara, the business owner, was thrown from the building and badly burned in the blaze. He was in critical condition at California Hospital.

Elizabeth Alvarado, a manager at JL Spray, arrived about an hour after the explosion but said she knew her boss had been working inside.

Lara was turning on an industrial oven when the explosion occurred, Alvarado said. Juan Lara, Jaime’s brother, was cleaning outside and watched the explosion from the street, Alvarado said.

“We were having a lot of work. There were hard weeks, like any business,” she said, “But they got here early because they had a lot of work.”

Alvarado said she had spoken to Gas Co. employees when they shut off the service Thursday afternoon.

“They told me the bill wasn’t paid,” she said.

Jesus Lima, who leases space in the building, said his father-in-law had loaned Jaime Lara money to pay the gas bill. Lima said Lara had planned to pay the bill Thursday afternoon.

But investigators at the scene Friday morning could immediately tell that the meter had been tampered with in a way that allowed for “energy theft,” Lord said. A maintenance valve was turned on so the gas could bypass the meter and regulator.

The appliances in the building were designed to handle about a third of a pound of pressure, Lord said, but after the tampering, the full 28 pounds of “street pressure” was released.

“And then they probably went inside and tried to light something,” he said.

The truck in which the first victim was found was parked next to the gas meter and contained tools that could have been used to manipulate it, Ruda said. Alvarado said she did not know the man.

The truck was one of several damaged vehicles parked outside the building. Most had their windows shattered and were covered with debris.

Firefighters worked throughout the day to stabilize the building, which had partially collapsed in the blast. The force of the explosion destroyed the interior and left a tangled mountain of wood and concrete in its place.

Search and rescue crews combed the building, fearing a third victim was trapped inside. Ultimately they concluded that there were only two victims, Ruda said.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who arrived at the scene Friday afternoon, called the explosion “a poster incident” for why customers should not tamper with their gas meters. He praised the Fire Department and said the damage “could have been a lot worse.”

Villaraigosa and Councilwoman Jan Perry, in whose district the explosion occurred, said they would consider a plan to educate South Los Angeles business owners about safe practices.

Perry said there have been three accidents in the area recently, which is home to many light industrial businesses similar to JL Spray.

“We need to home in on this area,” she said.