Advertisement

‘I’m dying right here’: Injured L.A. firefighters recount narrow escape from downtown blast

L.A. City Firefighter Andrew Tom greets L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti at a reunion for injured firefighters
L.A. City Firefighter Andrew Tom, who has burns to his waist and legs, greets L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti at a reunion for injured firefighters at the Grossman Burn Center in West Hills on Wednesday.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles firefighter Andrew Tom hadn’t been inside the downtown building long when he heard the boom.

Other firefighters said it was like a jet engine rocketing to life. Tom just knew it meant something terrible was about to happen.

Seconds later, as flames consumed the room and lapped at his LAFD gear, Tom thought about his fire academy training and what he’d been told about a flashover — the amount of time that combustible materials will take to ignite during an enclosed fire.

“They always say five seconds, or you’re gonna die. Five seconds went by. Ten seconds went by ... I was like there’s no way I’m getting out, at all,” Tom said. “That’s where my mind went into: It’s over. I’m gonna die in here.”

Advertisement

One of 11 firefighters who narrowly escaped a May explosion inside a downtown L.A. warehouse, Tom and several others spoke about the hellish experience Wednesday as they were reunited with the staff who helped heal their injuries at the Grossman Burn Center in West Hills.

“It’s the phone call you never want to get, when you’re told there’s 11 firefighters burned, and you don’t know how bad. ... It’s amazing they survived,” Los Angeles Fire Chief Chief Ralph Terrazas said.

The explosion inside an East 3rd Street warehouse prompted a sprawling criminal investigation by the U.S. Department of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives as well as the Los Angeles Police Department, and led Terrazas to order increased inspections of shops throughout the city that sell hazardous materials.

Terrazas said Wednesday that those inspections have led to the closure of 11 businesses since May.

Advertisement

The blast happened in a section of downtown nicknamed “bong row” because of the concentration of retailers selling rolling papers, butane and other supplies associated with vaping, tobacco and the extraction of THC for marijuana vape cartridges. Those in the legal cannabis industry say many of the stores on 3rd, Boyd and Wall streets supply butane and other items in bulk to unlicensed cannabis distributors.

An ATF spokeswoman said Wednesday that the cause of the blast remains unknown. The owner of Smoke Tokes, the business where the explosion happened, has not responded to requests for comment.

Carbon dioxide and butane canisters were found inside the business, authorities have said. Smoke Tokes is not a cannabis business, and law enforcement sources previously told The Times that no extraction laboratory setup or cannabis was found inside the building. A criminal investigation has focused on whether volatile substances were stored improperly, the sources said in May.

Ian Soriano, a 13-year LAFD veteran who was still wearing some protective coverings on his hand and leg to protect burns he suffered months ago, said the scene “looked like a war zone” as he and others tried to escape a blast that caused a 30-foot fireball to burst from the structure.

Advertisement

Soriano was one of several firefighters who had to escape from the roof of the building, and remembers clinging to a ladder as flames shot up around him.

“When I was stuck, and I couldn’t move, I was like, I’m done,” Soriano said. “I’m dying right here.”

Once outside, Soriano said he saw the fire truck he’d ridden to the station in had also been torched, and remembers seeing other firefighters with their skin severely burned as they were transported to the hospital. Soriano said he required two surgeries, and was only recently cleared to return to duty.

An LAFD spokesman said just two of the 11 firefighters burned that day have been able to return to work so far. Capt. Victor Aguirre was hospitalized for more than two months and suffered burns so severe he lost the use of his hands.

Advertisement

For some hurt that day, the battle remains mental, even as their physical injuries begin to fade. Tom, who sustained second- and third-degree burns to his back, ears and shoulder blades and still sports angry red scarring around his stomach and rib cage, said he remains unsure if he will return to his Watts firehouse.

“I still get the flashbacks. … I can go into the moment where I was trying to get out,” he said. “I can hear all the other guys screaming.”

Times staff writer Richard Winton contributed to this report.


Advertisement