A 9,000-gallon tanker truck leaking gasoline caught fire and triggered multiple explosions in South Los Angeles early Sunday, igniting surrounding structures and sending a huge column of black smoke into the air, authorities said.
L.A. fire officials arrived at the scene in the 200 block of West Slauson Avenue about 7:45 a.m. shortly before the tanker exploded, responding to residents who called 911 to report a strong smell of gas, Los Angeles Fire Department officials said.
The explosions occurred with such force that they broke a large manhole cover in half just east of Brentwood Street and Slauson Avenue and set a nearby home on fire, officials said. Much of the damage was confined to the home and an adjacent parking lot surrounded by corrugated metal.
Two women were injured in the blast; one suffered burns on 30% of her body, and the other was cut by glass from the explosion, officials said. Both were taken to a hospital, where they remained hours after the incident.
The truck’s smoldering gas tank lay on its side in the parking lot with one end blown open. More than an hour after the explosion, firefighters were still clambering on the roof of the charred home nearby.
Los Angeles fire Assistant Chief Jaime Moore said the property’s owners told fire officials they did not know the tanker was on the lot. He said the department is investigating whether the tenant violated the city’s fire codes.
“I can tell you — that sized tanker should not have been in that lot,” he said.
Firefighters do not know how much gas spilled from the tanker. After the fire, it was about 60% full, but some of the fluid inside could have been water and firefighting foam, Moore said.
Thirty people had to leave their homes because of the explosion, including residents of a two-story apartment complex evacuated because of the strong odor coming from the site. The American Red Cross and the city Fire Department helped families find temporary housing.
The lot where the explosion occurred was previously a recycling center, but it had been empty for about six months, a local business owner said. The tanker has been on the lot for less than a month, he said.
Dylan McCarthy, a representative with Canon Business Properties, which manages the property for the lot’s owner, said the tenant where the explosion took place was using the lot for storage. He declined to name the business.
Felipe Cuevas, 30, lives just a few hundred yards away from the site.
“My sister was getting home from work about 8 a.m. when she smelled gas in the air,” Cuevas said. “She reported it to the gas company. The gas company told her it would be there as soon as possible. As soon as she walked back into the house, there was a loud… boom, followed by six or seven more booms separated by about five minutes.”
Cuevas looked out at the neighborhood.
“Man, it was scary — look!” he said, showing his arms still covered in goosebumps. “I pulled out the garden hose, I started drenching our roof and my neighbors’ roofs with water. I still didn’t know what was going on. Then firefighters said, ‘You have to leave.’ ”
Joseph Casillas, 32, and his family also live nearby.
“There was a big explosion — we thought it was an earthquake,” Casillas said. “There was a fireball and a tornado of fire. It was very hectic in the streets of our neighborhood.”
Customers of Puro Texcoco, a Mexican restaurant nearby, quickly fled the scene, abandoning their half-eaten tacos and breakfast burritos.
Francisco Pilla, 33, works at the restaurant and was among those who ran.
“I heard an explosion, then I started running and I looked back and there was a little river of gasoline running along the curb and into the storm drain in front of the restaurant,” Pilla told The Times in Spanish.
The stench of gas saturated the air, Pilla recalled. He heard explosions, and as he looked back toward the restaurant, he saw the gas running into the storm drain ignite.
“It’s a little river of fire,” Pilla said.
Dozens of firefighters battled the blaze for at least 90 minutes before they were able to extinguish the fire, officials said.
The explosion created a huge plume of black smoke that several jetliners cut through during their approach to Los Angeles International Airport, but it did not affect airport operations, officials said.
Staff photographer Genaro Molina contributed to this story.