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From the Archives: Looting and fires ravage L.A.: 25 dead, 572 injured; 1,000 blazes reported

On the second day of rioting, a man runs past a burning Jon's market with a shopping cart full of diapers.

On the second day of rioting, a man runs past a burning Jon’s market with a shopping cart full of diapers.

(Kirk McKoy)

Thousands of looters ransacked stores and set fires Thursday in a chaotic rampage through the Los Angeles area as National Guard troops moved into the streets and a dusk-to-dawn curfew was clamped into force in numerous cities.

With the violence showing no signs of abating, Gov. Pete Wilson and Mayor Tom Bradley announced just before midnight that they have requested additional National Guard troops for a total of 6,000 in Los Angeles County. They said they have also asked federal authorities to place U.S. military forces on “standby alert” should greater troop strength become necessary.

“We are determined,” Wilson said, “that this city is not going to suffer the kind of terrorizing that some people seem bent on inflicting upon it.”

Triggered by Wednesday’s not guilty verdicts of four Los Angeles police officers charged with beating black motorist Rodney G. King, the second day of mushrooming violence pushed the death toll to 25, including eight people shot by police. Another 572 injuries were reported, 100 of them critical.

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In a period of a little more than 24 hours, about 1,000 structural fires were reported in Los Angeles County. It seemed as though, with each passing moment, fresh flames rose from new locations, sending ripples of fear through neighborhoods close to and miles away from the mayhem. Preliminary damage figures were being put at $200 million. Authorities have made more than 700 arrests.

As dusk approached, Police Commission President Stanley K. Sheinbaum said even the National Guard and the California Highway Patrol will not be enough to quiet the spreading unrest.

“The problem is widening, intensifying,” Sheinbaum said. “You have a whole social upheaval.”

Unlike the Watts riots of 1965, the violence this time has not been confined to an isolated area. Looters pilfered merchandise from mini-malls and swap meets throughout a combat zone that stretched from near downtown, into South Los Angeles, through the heart of Hollywood and toward the Westside.

In incidents reminiscent of what happened in Los Angeles on Wednesday night, some whites in Long Beach were attacked by angry black demonstrators, who reportedly killed one man and injured at least 15 people, according to police and hospital officials.

A mob of about 15 rioters attacked two men on a motorcycle as they drove near Lemon Avenue and 20th Street, killing one of the men when he was shot in the back of the head and injuring the second, police said.

Another man who said he was dragged from his car and beaten was also treated at Long Beach Memorial Hospital, spokesman Ron Yukelson said.

The Hollywood area also took a heavy beating late Thursday as roaming rioters looted shops and burned down buildings. At one point, several white women in a Jeep Cherokee joined a crowd emptying a Gap clothing store on Melrose Avenue.

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At some sites in the Los Angeles Basin, looting was so intense that gridlock snarled parking lots and streets as looters attempted to drive off with their goods.

As they casually carted off everything from guns to diapers, some expressed fury over the King verdicts, but others went about their work in high spirits, seeming to enjoy the anarchy of the moment.

The rioters “chose the opportunity to steal, loot, vandalize and, indeed, to kill,” Bradley said in his second public appeal in less than 12 hours, as he struggled unsuccessfully to bring the city under control. “That, we cannot--and we will not--tolerate.”

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* By late afternoon, after lengthy delays, hundreds of National Guardsmen started taking up positions in hot spots around the city, including one near Koreatown, where rioters set stores ablaze and looted merchandise--a scene played out countless times in the greater Los Angeles area. Some Korean-American merchants armed with shotguns posted themselves on the roofs of their properties. Near the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, where three fires burned heavily and a man was shot at around 5 p.m, guardsmen were taunted as they tried to keep control of the area.

* Police rode shotgun for firefighters who had to dodge sporadic gunfire as they battled about 300 blazes in stores and at least one apartment building. As a pall of smoke fell across the region, much of Los Angeles’ daily business ground to a halt. Government offices, courthouses, law firms and schools closed out of fear.

* As criticism of the Los Angeles Police Department’s handling of the crisis mounted, Chief Daryl F. Gates admitted that his troops were overwhelmed in their initial response.

* Flights were being rerouted into the Los Angeles International Airport, causing serious delays or cancellations. “We want to keep them (jets) high enough over the area of the looting to prevent small-arms fire from reaching those airplanes,” a federal aviation spokesman said.

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The Police Response

As 2,400 National Guardsmen slowly moved into place late Thursday, Gates admitted that his force was not prepared for the eruption after the King verdicts--despite his highly publicized warnings to officers of potential trouble.

“We were simply overwhelmed,” Gates said in a news conference. He was dressed in full police uniform with a holster on his hip, and was flanked by Fire Chief Donald Manning.

The two said the rapid escalation and spread of the violence caught authorities off guard.

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“For a period of time from midnight to about 3 o’clock, we were getting about three new fires a minute,” Manning said. “We had numerous situations where there were attempts to kill firefighters. Here you have a group of people who are out doing their absolute best to protect others’ lives, and people are trying to kill them.

“They tried to kill them with axes, they tried to kill them with gunshots. They tried to kill them in a number of ways.”

Gates, speaking later in the day to reporters, conceded that it is taking much longer than he expected to control the unrest.

“My timetable was to contain it last night. If not last night, today at noon. . . . (Now) hopefully it will be this evening,” he said. Gates, who served as a field commander during the Watts riots, said the scattershot nature of the current violence has spread LAPD resources thin.

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“We are doing everything in our power,” Gates said. “We will bring this under control, there’s no question in my mind.”

Despite these comments, the National Guard was not immediately deployed after Wilson authorized its use late Wednesday. Most arrived early Thursday but spent the morning on refresher courses while awaiting the order from Los Angeles authorities to take up positions.

Wilson later blamed the delay on communication breakdowns and a shortage of ammunition.

By late afternoon, guardsmen armed with loaded M-16 rifles and riding in armored cars were dispatched to numerous hot spots. They moved in behind LAPD forces to secure areas from milling, angry crowds of looters and arsonists who had battled over turf with police all day.

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Some were stationed at the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Vermont Avenue where plundering of a strip mall had left little to guard.

“It’s scary, absolutely scary,” said Staff Sgt. Jack Nix, a 19-year guard veteran who lives in the Bay Area. A military police officer by profession, Nix was standing in front of a graffiti-covered wall with the message “This is for Rodney King.”

“When it gets dark,” Nix said, “it gets much worse.” As he spoke, ashes from half a dozen fires in the immediate area landed on his helmet.

In some areas, the guard soldiers were welcomed, but many also were heckled and taunted with obscenities from motorists and small throngs of people.

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Many of the guardsmen, a number of whom served in Operation Desert Storm, appeared jittery.

“This is a lot different from attacking an Iraqi bunker,” Col. Roger Goodrich said. “There you know who the enemy is. Here there are many unknowns. . . . This is citizen soldiers facing citizens.”

Though they were assigned to protect buildings, guard units occasionally chipped in to help push back crowds and were pressed into emergency paramedic duty. At about 5 p.m., a Westminster man jerked his pickup truck to a stop in front of the guard unit near the intersection of Vermont Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. He had been shot.

“I was just sitting there, stopped at the stop light, and this guy just jumped out to grab my camera,” said Bruce Gleason, the shooting victim, as he lay in the back of his van, his left arm bleeding badly. “He shot me. . . . I thought it would hurt more to get shot.”

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Guardsmen treated Gleason’s wound and protected him until an ambulance arrived.

On the Streets

With thick smoke clouding the air and car horns and burglar alarms blaring, crowds of looters swarmed dozens of stores with seemingly little fear of reprisal. Businesses were sacked along every major thoroughfare running from Koreatown into South-Central Los Angeles, and by midafternoon it spread along the Mid-Wilshire corridor, Watts, Compton and Westwood.

By evening, Hollywood bore the brunt. Crowds of mostly young people charged up Hollywood Boulevard, pausing to loot stores and haul off choice goods. An electronics store belonging to the chairman of the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce was among the targets. A swap meet and a dozen other buildings were in flames.

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Several residents, including TV personality Hewell Howser, helped chase away looters from a Radio Shack store in Hollywood before sundown Thursday night.

“All it takes is standing up to them and saying we don’t want this to happen. Get the hell out of here,” Howser said. “They’re thieves. They’re hoodlums.”

The looting, which also was reported in Long Beach, Pomona and Norwalk, rapidly became a free-for-all. Entire families unabashedly made off with sacks of food, clothing, tennis shoes and auto parts snatched from dozens of stores.

Police periodically moved in to clear an area, but as soon as the officers were gone, the rush resumed. Eventually, with the National Guard in place, the pace of arrests picked up. Charges ranged from vandalism and arson to assault, police said.

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Israel Diaz, who works for a glass company, was boarding up his second grocery store of the day at the corner of Slauson Avenue and Avalon Boulevard. Looters continued to run in and out of the market even as he worked.

“There were even little kids running in for their parents,” an astonished Diaz said. “ ‘Go on in, run in there and get more,’ ” men and women told their children, he said.

In the Crenshaw district, pregnant women took food, and one woman yelled from a car to her 9-year-old daughter to retrieve a box of Pampers for her younger siblings.

Along Washington Boulevard, a crowd of about 200 people raided markets as two raging fires gutted a portion of one city block.

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“It’s kids, women with children, an exasperated Thomas Gutierrez, 40, said as he guarded his own auto parts store. “We can’t call the cops. We can’t call anyone. You’re on your own. Is there ever going to be an end to this?”

Some residents videotaped the plunder.

“I don’t believe in stealing,” said a security guard taping people looting a Farmer John’s meat freezer, “but it’s history, and I want to have a piece of it.”

Throughout portions of the city, sidewalks were littered with glass from shattered windows, trash and charred ruins.

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Near the intersection of 3rd Street and Vermont Avenue, residents were evacuated from an apartment building shortly before noon after arsonists set it afire.

Yvonne Latchison, 22, was watching television coverage of the unrest when someone ran through the building yelling that it was on fire. She and other residents escaped unharmed.

With the fire contained, the scene at that intersection continued to verge on chaos most of the day, as a crowd of several hundred youths surged into grocery stores and mini-malls, while overwhelmed police looked on helplessly.

A Vons and a Thrifty drugstore at the intersection were stormed shortly after noon to a chorus of war whoops and cheers. A trash can went through a window and within minutes a woman emerged with eight bottles of champagne, several cartons of cigarettes and a boom box.

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A 31-year-old Altadena man, who emerged with similar booty, said, “This is not just us tearing apart our community. Everybody is pissed off. We have tried to be peaceful, but that didn’t work.”

At a Tianguis supermarket at 3rd and Bonnie Brae streets about 200 people ran in and out of the store, some slipping and falling on spilled flour and crushed vegetables, their arms filled with groceries.

Several looters shouted: “Free food! Free food in there!” as they ran out of the store toward cars or around corners.

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A 16-year-old Santa Monica resident said he drove into Los Angeles to participate in the looting. “I don’t even believe it myself. I never thought something like this would happen,” he said.

Looters also traveled west on Wilshire Boulevard, tearing an iron grill off a jewelry store at Vermont Avenue. Women strolled the streets toting bright green and orange laundry baskets piled high with recently stolen detergent and toilet paper.

At Mariposa Avenue, looters stormed a Big 5 sporting goods store, carrying out armfuls of rifles, baseball caps and coolers. A few children, who could not have been any older than 12, made off with crossbows under their arms.

Another Big 5, where Wilshire meets San Vicente Boulevard at the border of Beverly Hills, was looted even as the store was open and customers milled about. The manager rushed to the front to connect the iron grill, but the mob just pushed past him and began snatching everything in sight.

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Several miles away, in the Fairfax district, Samy’s Camera at Detroit Street and Beverly Boulevard was also set afire.

Residents said they saw people in a 1992 Chevrolet pickup and a Ford Bronco pull into a shopping mall across the street and try to break in. When they could not enter, they threw an incendiary device and in minutes the shop was in flames.

As firefighters arrived, a group of 30 residents helped to hook up hoses and were battling the blaze themselves.

A City Crippled

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By midday on Thursday, Los Angeles was gradually becoming crippled by the spasms of violence, even in areas where disturbances had not been reported.

Criminal proceedings in most county courthouses were suspended, all city schools were closed and scores of private offices shut their doors and sent their employees home early. Trash collection was curtailed, and even the U.S. Postal Service said it would not deliver mail to 14 ZIP codes.

Professional sports teams canceled their games, including an NBA playoff between the Los Angeles Clippers and Utah Jazz. Traditional Cinco de Mayo events scheduled for this weekend were canceled.

Shopping centers from Eagle Rock to West L.A. closed early. At the Beverly Center, shoppers began fleeing amid semi-chaos in the parking garage. People honked horns and yelled for drivers to hurry toward the exits. The parking fee was waived and the exit arm lifted to allow people to leave quickly.

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Stranded commuters were seen hitchhiking on freeways.

Bradley expanded an overnight curfew to the whole city after Gates warned that rioting had begun “leapfrogging” to communities beyond earlier established boundaries.

“This will have a negative impact on commerce in this city and the lives of those who live here,” Bradley said at a news conference Thursday afternoon.

Bradley also said, however, that he expected police to use discretion in enforcing the curfew. “There is no way the police can arrest everybody on the street,” he said. “What we’re really looking for here is voluntary compliance.”

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Lines at supermarkets from one end of the city to the other ranged from long to very long as consumers stocked up on their way home Thursday, concerned about when they would be able to buy food again. And at gasoline stations motorists waited up to an hour to fill their tanks.

“The lines are 20-30 people long, and every register is open,” said a manager at the Hughes’ market at 11361 National Blvd. in West Los Angeles. “People are buying very large orders--bottled water and things like that. They want to get enough stuff before the curfew.”

At USC, final examinations were to begin Thursday but were postponed until at least Monday, officials said. Many frightened students were leaving the campus and adjacent neighborhood for their families’ homes.

“Everybody’s really nervous. We’re getting out of here,” said Kacy O’Brien of Newport Beach, as she and fellow members of the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority were hurriedly packing their cars and departing from the Greek Row on 28th Street.

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Classes at UCLA were canceled.

Meanwhile, Wilson, his voice among many national leaders shocked and dismayed by the events in Los Angeles, said he would travel to the city to inspect damage.

Saying he was stunned by the acquittals, he said: “There can be no excusing excessive force by a police officer.”

And, he added: “There can be no excusing arson, theft, or deadly assault by a citizen. We are not going to tolerate either in California.”

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The Grief

Many of the burned and looted stores belonged to Korean-born merchants. Tensions between black and Korean communities have been at high pitch for some time, and were inflamed last year when a Korean-born shopkeeper shot and killed a black girl.

As rioters roamed the streets, some said they were avenging 15-year-old Latasha Harlins’ death. But if the goal was to punish Korean-Americans, the plan backfired. Victims were people of all ethnic groups, residents of an economically depressed neighborhood that once again suffers the brunt of the destruction.

Carol Clark, the black manager of a Thrifty Pharmacy that was emptied by looters, huddled in the parking lot with her employees, fretting over their future. Can the store be repaired? Do they have a job?

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“I cried last night, and I cried this morning when I saw what they had done,” she said. “This was just an opportunity to loot, and people took advantage of it. Why else would they break a glass door to our beer closet, when they could just open the door and get what they wanted?”

Like many residents, she said she believed that the violence has gone beyond rage over Wednesday’s verdict.

“This whole area was just sitting on a powder keg,” she said, “and the King verdict was the spark.”

Carlos Garcia, a resident of the neighborhood around 3rd Street and Vermont Avenue, agreed.

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“Right now, they’re bringing down the place,” he said. “But two days from now, when they’re laughing and their mom sends them out to get milk, they’re going to think: Where?”

A block away from the First African Methodist Episcopal Church, where black community leaders had held an emotional rally Wednesday night to urge nonviolence, the scene Thursday was one of utter disaster.

Shopkeepers who arrived to find their small retail businesses in embers cried in grief. Others, whose stores were spared from flames, busily tacked up plywood to shore up their broken windows.

Fire consumed a market owned by a Korean family; a butcher shop owned by a Latino man; and one of two buildings of A.N. Abell Auctions, which had been in business since 1916.

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Occupants of at least three four-story apartment buildings along Adams Boulevard, most of them Latinos, were burned out of their residences.

Dona Alicia Hernandez, who came to Los Angeles from El Salvador five years ago, sat in shock on a piece of luggage on the sidewalk of Adams Boulevard. Left homeless by a fire, Hernandez, head in hands, surrounded herself with her meager remaining possessions: random shoes, pots and pans, cassette tapes and a large bottle of vegetable oil stored in laundry baskets, two dresser drawers and a Salvation Army plastic shopping bag.

Others whose residences were still standing stared at the remains of laundries and markets and pondered out loud whether they would be able to get by without basic services in their neighborhood. “Now we’ll have to go all the way to Boys Market--if it’s still there,” said Velma Phillips, 37, a nightclub manager.

Outside the remains of the New Don-Re Market on Adams Boulevard, co-owner Bona Lee, 40 sobbed as she peered at the gutted interior of the block-long store. Until Wednesday night, it had housed a grocery, a coin laundry, a butcher shop, a liquor store and a hamburger stand. Thursday morning, all that remained was the front wall, embers and the charred hulks of a long row of washing machines.

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“We didn’t do anything wrong,” said the tearful woman, who came to Los Angeles from Korea two decades ago. “We worked like slaves here.”

“Is this justice? What is it? We did nothing, we worked here 365 days a year. What did we do to them? Nothing.”

From Watts, where a whole community had fought for decades to lure a single supermarket back into the community after the 1965 riots, to City Hall, where Thursday night’s empty streets seemed in a way more threatening than Wednesday night’s throngs, no one claimed to have a solution.

“I don’t think anyone knows what we ought to be doing,” said Councilwoman Joy Picus during an emergency City Council meeting that convened and adjourned without an answer.

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In South Los Angeles, where fires lined one thoroughfare after another, the sense of futility seemed overwhelming.

“I figure Dr. King died for nothing,” said Tee Barnett, a South Los Angeles data control clerk, who could see half a dozen plumes of smoke rising behind the Forum at midday Thursday.

Donald Martin, a 30-year resident who works in an agency that provides housing to low-income people, said the violence is rooted deeply.

“This is a festering sore that at some point or another has to come to a head, and this is it,” he said. “This has probably been festering since 1965.”

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This report was written by Times staff writer Tracy Wilkinson.

The Toll

As of 11 p.m. on Thursday night, authorities reported the following tallies:

Deaths: 25

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Injuries: 572

Fires: 1,000

Arrests: 720

National Guard: Los Angeles officials have requested 4,000 troops in addition to 2,000 requested by Los Angeles County.

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CHP deployment: 750

Firefighter deployment: 1,750

Estimate of damage: $200 million to $250 million citywide, according to mayor’s office

CURFEW ZONES AND TROUBLE SPOTS

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Following are among the areas where the most serious destruction, violence and other disruptions occurred Thursday in Los Angeles County, according to Times reporters and federal authorities: A--Los Angeles International Airport: Flights in and out were being rerouted, causing serious delays or cancellations. “We want to keep them (jets) high enough over the area of the looting to prevent small arms fire from reaching those airplanes,” a federal aviation spokesman said. B--Hollywood: On Western Avenue near Santa Monica Boulevard. Looting of the Sears, Roebuck & Co. outlet and numerous furniture and clothing stores was reported, and arson fires broke out in large warehouse buildings in the area.

On Hollywood Boulevard in the heart of Hollywood, several medium-sized fires and looting of some stores were reported, including Frederick’s of Hollywood lingerie store. C--Koreatown: Looting and numerous small fires were reported on Wilshire Boulevard near Western Avenue.

Near 3rd Street and Vermont Avenue, looting of numerous stores and other businesses was reported along two blocks of Vermont. Crowds were attracted to the area by a large arson-suspected fire that gutted an apartment building at 2nd Street and Vermont. D--South Los Angeles: At Adams and Crenshaw boulevards, a gas station and community center were torched.

At the Crenshaw Town Center at Crenshaw Boulevard and Slauson Avenue, a stream of people looted numerous businesses, including a Boys’ Market, a Thrifty drugstore and several smaller establishments.

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At Western Avenue and Washington Boulevard, two mini-malls on the southeast and northeast corners were looted.

At Venice Boulevard and Western Avenue, a shopping center that contains a Viva market and Sav-on drugstore were torched and looted. A smaller mini-mall across the street was also burned and looted.

A two-block stretch of shops was burned and looted near West Manchester Avenue and Broadway.

Numerous looting incidents and small fires were reported at Slauson Avenue and Avalon Boulevard.

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An Orange County firefighter from Santa Ana was shot and wounded while working with a Los Angeles County Fire Department strike team at 98th Street and Vermont Avenue. E--Crenshaw District: Along Washington Boulevard, looting of grocery markets was reported as several fires raged in the area.

In the 2800 and 2900 blocks of Crenshaw Boulevard, several business were burned and looted, including a mini-mall dominated by an El Pollo Loco restaurant. The Tempo record store in the 2800 block of Crenshaw, one of the more prominent shops of its kind on the Crenshaw strip, was ransacked of videotapes and compact discs.

At Santa Barbara Plaza at Martin Luther King Boulevard and Marlton Avenue, an outdoor shopping center was severely damaged, with rampant looting in the Crenshaw Swap Meet warehouse and other stores.

In the 3800 block of Santa Rosalia Drive, several small businesses, several of them black-owned, broken in to and looted. F--Downtown Los Angeles: Looting was reported at small businesses on Spring and Main streets. A movie theater at 6th Street and Broadway was destroyed by fire. G--Compton: Rioters torched the Compton Center Mall near the city’s heart, engulfing a department store in flames.

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A dusk-to-dawn curfew, which restricts all pedestrians and vehicles from any public street or area during the curfew period, was imposed at least temporarily in various areas of the Southland.

Los Angeles County curfew area shown by heavy black line.

Curfew areas, include Los Angeles and other cities, shown in white.


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