Firefighters were inside a burning downtown Los Angeles business Saturday evening when there was a huge explosion. The blast injured 12 first responders and spurred an investigation into its cause, fire officials said.
The explosion damaged several storefronts, melted fire helmets and left one fire truck burned and covered in debris. Officials said firefighters had to pass through the fireball to escape.
“Firefighters were coming out with obvious damage and burns,” said Erik Scott, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Fire Department.
They ran “straight through that ball of flame to get to safety across the street,” Scott said.
Eleven firefighters received treatment for burn injuries at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center, according to the LAFD. A 12th firefighter was treated and released at an emergency room Saturday night for “a minor extremity injury,” said Nicholas Prange, an LAFD spokesman.
As of Sunday morning, three firefighters had been discharged from the hospital. Eight remained hospitalized, including two in critical but stable condition.
All were expected to survive, officials said. Doctors at USC said one of the firefighters would probably need skin grafts.
The cause of the fire has not been determined.
The fire broke out in an older business district off East 3rd Street known for its various smoke shops. Authorities referred to it as Bong Row.
An initial investigation of the scene identified the business as Smoke Tokes, a warehouse distributor with supplies for butane hash oil, he said. Authorities said carbon dioxide and butane canisters were found inside the building.
The owner of Smoke Tokes could not be reached for comment. A website for the company said it has “two locations with one of them being a cash and carry location and the other is our giant warehouse.”
Firefighters first received a call about 6:30 p.m. Saturday about a structure fire in the 300 block of Boyd Street south of Little Tokyo. The businesses were not open at the time.
“This fire started off like any other bread-and-butter structure fire where we had a one-story commercial building with smoke showing,” Scott said.
LAFD Station No. 9 responded. It is one of the busiest fires stations in the nation, serving one of Los Angeles’ most troubled spots: skid row. On top of the frequent calls that existed even before the pandemic, firefighters there have, in recent weeks, also have been conducting COVID-19 tests on skid row.
When the fire broke out Saturday night, firefighters went to the roof to try to create ventilation, and firefighters used power saws to force entry, Scott said. Others went inside, attempting to find the source of the blaze.
“It was routine until they heard a rumbling, high-pitched sound —they described it like a jet engine spinning up — along with pressurized smoke,” Scott said. Firefighters started backing out, he said, but “conditions drastically changed within moments.”
The explosion, he said, created a 30-foot-wide fireball.
“This is one of the worst incidents in recent history that we have been to,” Scott said. “Our firefighters were driven off the roof, frantically scurrying down the aerial ladder to safety through a blowtorch. Firefighters inside had to escape a massive explosion.”
All of the injured firefighters work at Station 9, according to LAFD.
Initially, officials could not account for all the firefighters.
In an LAFD radio transmission, an official is heard screaming, “Mayday! Explosion! I have two down firefighters.”
“This is a difficult time for our fire family,” Scott said, his voice tired. “Our number one concern is to take care of the injured as well as the mental health of the other firefighters on scene.”
It took more than 230 firefighters an hour and 42 minutes after the call came in, authorities said. Video at the scene captured a series of smaller explosions after the initial blast.
On Sunday, the heavily damaged warehouse still stood, Scott said. Nearby streets were cordoned off with yellow tape.
The scene left by the fire was apocalyptic. On Sunday, the yellow jackets of firefighters who had responded to the blaze still lay on the ground, with holes burned in them. Melted helmets were scattered about.
There was a charred fire truck, Scott said, and a blackened fire hose. There were discharged fire extinguishers “possibly that were utilized to extinguish our own members,” Scott said.
LAFD Chief Ralph M. Terrazas said the firefighters responding to the call sensed something was wrong inside the building but could not escape before the explosion.
“When one of your own is injured ... you can imagine the amount of mental stress,” Terrazas said. “A lot of our firefighters were traumatized.”
Along with LAFD arson investigators, the explosion is being investigated by the criminal conspiracy section of the Los Angeles Police Department’s major crimes division and the gang and narcotics division, LAPD Asst. Chief Horace Frank said.
“The explosion was massive, and those firefighters are very lucky to be alive,” Frank said. “Skill and awareness is the reason they were able to get out from an incredibly dangerous situation.”
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ national response team will arrive Monday to assist in the investigation, federal officials said Sunday.
The team brings together science and fire experts who can reconstruct scenes in detail. It assisted most recently in California on the Conception boat fire, which killed 34 people in the vessel off Santa Barbara in September. The team also assisted in the investigation of the Ghost Ship warehouse fire, which killed 36 people in December 2016.
In 2016, there was another major fire at a downtown L.A. business called Smoke Tokes at an address nearby on 3rd Street.
“We are aware of a fire in September 2016, nearby on 3rd Street, with a building doing business as Smoke Tokes,” Scott said Sunday. “Our arson investigators are aware of that incident, and that’s part of the active investigation.”
It took more than 160 firefighters about two hours to put out that blaze, with the flames largely confined to the wholesaler and distributor of smoking paraphernalia, the Los Angeles Times reported at the time.
Firefighters encountered pressurized gas cylinders that exploded amid the inferno, fire officials said. “It was a tricky fire for us,” LAFD Battalion Chief Mark Curry said at the time. “We had multiple explosions going off inside the fire while it was burning due to the butane containers releasing.”
There were no injuries in the 2016 fire. The LAFD later said in a statement that firefighters who entered the building found “intense fire in dense and highly flammable storage that included pressurized flammable gas cylinders, several of which were heard to explode.”
It was unclear whether that business and the one that burned Saturday were connected.
Jeralyn Cleveland was celebrating a family birthday party Saturday on the roof of the 13-story apartment building she manages three blocks away when she saw the explosion.
“Everyone in my building thought there was a bomb that went off,” said Cleveland, 37. “It was like a mushroom.”
Cleveland said there were small fires all the time in the neighborhood, which borders skid row, but she had never seen anything like this before.