Los Angeles explosion injures 12 fire fighters, US
An explosion at a warehouse in Los Angeles in the US state of California on Saturday, 16 May 2020, caused injuries to 12 fire fighters. The incident happened around 18h30 on Saturday near San Pedro and Third streets in Little Tokyo at a business called Smoke Tokes, where crews found small butane canisters inside and outside the one-storey warehouse, Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD) Fire Chief Ralph Terrazas said. Officials said it appeared to have ignited at a warehouse that had supplies to manufacture marijuana concentrate. Fire fighters who responded to the initial blaze tried to leave as smoke pressure built inside the building, Terrazas said. But an explosion occurred, injuring 12 fire fighters. Several of the fire fighters had inhaled the super-heated gas, swelling their airways. The seats of the fire engine caught fire. Flames had blackened the engine’s sides. A mayday call was immediately transmitted over the radio. Some fire fighters entered on the ground while others climbed up on a ladder to try to ventilate the roof, LAFD spokesman Erik Scott said. But fire fighters started to hear a rumbling, high-pitched sound, and a call was made for everyone to get out. Suddenly, an explosion shot flames and smoke into the sky. Scott said crew members had to "go through a fireball" when they were coming down the ladder. It was like going through "a 30-foot-tall blow torch," Scott said.
The crew members were transported to the LA County USC Medical Centre, four of them sent to a burn intensive care unit and two placed on ventilators due to inhalation of superheated gases, attending physician Dr Marc Eckstein said on Saturday night. The other fire fighters suffered minor to very serious burns in their upper extremities, the doctor added. Hospital officials expect them to “pull through,” Eckstein said.
The Los Angeles Fire Department previously said 11 fire fighters were injured in the incident but later announced a 12th crew member who was treated for a minor extremity injury at an emergency room and released on Saturday night.
Officials said three fire fighters were discharged on Sunday while eight remained hospitalised, including two in critical but stable condition. Later on Sunday, the two fire fighters placed on ventilators were taken off them, according to LAFD Captain Erik Scott. “They continue to remain in the intensive care unit for treatment of significant burn injuries,” LAFD said of the two fire fighters. Authorities reported no other injuries.
The incident triggered a “mayday” call and drew more than 230 fire fighters who worked on extinguishing the blaze for nearly two hours, the fire department said. "A Mayday to us means a fire fighter is missing, down or trapped," the chief said. Those who responded will work with mental health professionals, Chief Terrazas said. "A lot of our fire fighters were traumatised," he said. "I spoke to them directly and they're holding up. But when one of your own is injured ... you can imagine the amount of emotional stress."
People nearby heard the rumbling from the explosion, which sent flames and black smoke up into the air, visible from miles away. Many posted footage of the incident on social media. One video showed fire fighters coming down a ladder as flames raged near them.
In four swift minutes, fire fighters from Los Angeles City Fire Station 9 in Skid Row hopped into their trucks and engines and dashed about half-a-mile to a smoke shop that was burning from the inside.
Labelled Incident #1073, Saturday’s 18h26 call to 327 East Boyd Street in downtown Los Angeles had fire fighters working in what was a routine offensive stance, said Los Angeles Fire Chief Ralph Terrazas, who spoke with members of Station 9 and described the details of the call. Smoke rose from the shop, which hugged a series of other commercial buildings. The crew wanted to smother the heart of the fire, which appeared to burn deep into the structure.
Several fire fighters perched on a ladder suspended above the building to spray water onto the roof. The others pried open the shop’s steel doors and with a hose in hand, walked into the smoke. But as the crew entered the burning shop, a fire captain overseeing the incident felt something was off. “Things didn’t seem right,” Terrazas said, referring to the captain’s observations.
He noticed the heat increasing from the back of the building. A thermal image camera tracks temperature levels and as heat in a building rises, the colours grow brighter on the screen. Immediately, the captain ordered his crew to get out of the building. So did other captains on scene, LAFD spokesman Erik Scott said on Sunday.
A few fire fighters headed toward the shop to assist their exit. And in a flash, while they made their way out, an explosion erupted from the building.
First responders described the boom as a freight train or jet engine, shaking the block. A ball of flames shot at least 30 feet into the air and out into the street. Fire fighters from inside ran out onto the sidewalk, ripping off their burning coats and melting helmets to reveal obvious burns on their arms, hands, back and ears. Others on the ladder scurried down, also shedding their flaming coats. The ladder itself was left charred.
Within minutes of the mayday call, paramedics rushed the injured city fire fighters, all from Station 9, into the emergency room of Los Angeles County and USC Medical Centre. All of them were alert and responsive. All of them were shaken and traumatised.
In all, 12 fire fighters went to the ER. Two of them at first appeared to have life-threatening injuries but later into the evening, doctors declared that all of the fire fighters were expected to survive, said Dr Marc Eckstein, medical director of the fire department. Some were left with minor burns, others with major, third-degree burns that may require skin-grafting, Eckstein said. He said there was no evidence that the impact of the blast itself had injured the fire fighters. If they had been closer, the results could have been deadly. “Things could’ve been so much worse, today,” Eckstein said.
Terrazas said ordering the fire fighters to exit the building spared them the worst of the violent explosion. “Every second counts,” Terrazas said while walking back into the hospital on Saturday night. “If you’re delayed, you’re gonna be exposed to direct flame for that much longer. So every second counts in getting out.”
At the scene of the blast, a couple hundred fire fighters extinguished the flames about 1 1/2 hours after the explosion. Protective equipment reduced to ashy debris littered the sidewalk. Plastic helmets were left melted into the pavement. Cluttering the roadway were butane canisters, which were the focus of arson investigators. The cause of the fire and blast wasn’t immediately determined.
Inside Station 9, late on Saturday evening, a different set of faces manned the phones and radio. None of the Station 9 fire fighters on the #1073 call were there. Instead, a crew from the department’s San Pedro stations was brought in to cover for them for the night.
The next morning, crews remained on the scene as the probe continues. “The cause is of great concern to us…” said an incident update from the fire department.
LAFD spokesman Erik Scott described the explosion’s horrific aftermath: a fire truck charred from 30 to 40 feet away from the building, holes burned through fire fighters’ gear and melted helmets. “This could’ve been worse,” Scott said.
Smoke Tokes’ website describes the company as a distributor and wholesaler of smoking and vaping products. The warehouse appeared to have supplies for manufacturers of butane honey oil, according to the LAFD.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) says it is sending a team of arson and explosives experts, along with special agents from its LA field office, at the request of the city. It says its National Response Team can help determine the origin and cause of the fire and also help gather evidence for potential criminal prosecution. Chief Ralph Terrazas said it was typical to open a criminal investigation in incidents like this one.
Francis Omolo Liech, secretary general of Kenya National Fire Brigade Association (KENFIBA) has conveyed their thoughts to the LAFD, saying they are heartbroken to hear of the fire fighters who were injured while battling inferno in America and their families, “We wish them quick recovery hoping that no one lost his or her life. Thank you.”
Sources: Bay Area Firefighter, Los Angeles Daily News, CNN and KENFIBA