Tampering found at deadly L.A. blast

Gas company: Meter was turned off and illegal line was set up, sending gas into the building at high pressure

Published July 30, 2010 6:58PM (EDT)

Authorities say a tampered gas line has been found at the scene of a commercial building explosion that killed two people in South Los Angeles.

Southern California Gas Co. spokeswoman Denise King says the meter was shut off and someone hooked up an illegal line that sent natural gas into the building at dangerously high pressure.

Leaking gas is suspected of igniting the blast at 6:15 a.m. Friday in a metal-fabricating firm.

Fire Capt. Stephen Ruda says the blast collapsed and shattered the front of the wooden building.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- A suspected natural gas explosion Friday shattered a metal-fabricating business and killed two people, including one worker who was hurled across the street by the blast and another man who was electrocuted by a downed power line, fire officials said.

The explosion at about 6:15 a.m. turned the front of the wooden building into a mass of downed, shattered wooden beams. The building caught fire and 100 firefighters doused the blaze in about 25 minutes, fire spokesman Erik Scott said.

A worker was thrown into the street and died from his blast injuries, fire Capt. Stephen Ruda said.

Another man who tried to move his stake-bed truck away from the building was jolted by a downed 34,500-volt power line and died at a hospital, Ruda said.

Daniel Ibarra, who works at the building, said he was taking out the trash when the blast hit. The 27-year-old man appeared in shock as he leaned against a wall with a bruised leg surveying the damage.

"I was very lucky," said Ibarra, whose thick black hair was singed on top.

An urban search-and-rescue team shored up beams and sent in dogs to search for another person after hearing reports that someone might be trapped in the debris. Ruda said the dogs detected nothing, but heavy equipment would be brought in to move the debris and continue the search.

The cause of the blast remained under investigation, but Ruda said it was suspected that natural gas or an industrial gas may have been leaking and collected overnight in the building then ignited when operations resumed in the morning.

The gas meter at the building showed illegal tampering, Southern California Gas Co. spokesman Dennis Lord said.

"Bypassing the gas meter put higher-than-normal pressure into the building," Lord said.

The business, J.L. Spray, has four employees and makes metal security fences, doors, windows and gates, said Elizabeth Alvarado, a secretary for the business.

She was not at the site when the blast occurred but she said the owner, Jaime Lara, arrived every morning to start a propane furnace that is used to heat-cure a paint-like powder coating that is used on the metal.

Jonathan Apol, 20, a welder who works in a building next door, said he was putting on his work coveralls when he heard the explosion.

"I thought it was like an earthquake or something," he said.

He heard a bang followed by two more a few seconds later. He raced into the street in his boxer shorts and saw two dazed men standing in front of a burning building.

One man was shouting: "Jaime! Jaime!" Apol said.

By Thomas Watkins

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