LAFD says it has no record of inspecting building where explosion injured 11 FFs

Fire Chief Ralph M. Terrazas said an inspection likely would have led to the seizure of some of the chemicals that fueled the blast


James Queally
Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Fire Department has no record of ever inspecting a downtown building where an explosion severely burned 11 firefighters earlier this year, and the city's top fire official acknowledged that an inspection might have led to the seizure of some of the chemicals that fueled the blast.

The business address for Smoke Tokes, a Boyd Street retailer that stored large quantities of butane for sale before it burst into flames May 16, "was not found in the LAFD fire prevention database, and records of inspection were never completed," according to a fire department report made public earlier this year.

Los Angeles Fire Department officials said the department has no records indicating that a building where 11 firefighters were injured in an explosion in May was ever inspected. (Photo/Mel Melcon, Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles Fire Department officials said the department has no records indicating that a building where 11 firefighters were injured in an explosion in May was ever inspected. (Photo/Mel Melcon, Los Angeles Times)

It is unclear if the fire department has ever inspected the building, which was constructed in 1999, according to city records. The fire prevention database is used to generate lists of addresses to which individual firehouses need to send personnel for inspections.

Fire Chief Ralph M. Terrazas said Smoke Tokes would have required an annual visit from a fire inspector, and given the large quantities of butane and nitrous oxide found in the building, it did not appear that it had been inspected in the period before the fire. Terrazas said an inspection would have likely led to the seizure of many of the flammable materials that fed the 30-foot fireball that shot into the sky over downtown.

"From what I saw shortly after the incident … they were obviously overstocked, and we would have cleared inventory, directed them to reduce inventory, cleared aisles, cleared product away from the doors … basically make it safe for our firefighters in the event there was an emergency," Terrazas said.

Eleven firefighters suffered serious burns as a result of the blast, and several have said they were convinced they were going to die that day. Six remain out of work due to their injuries. A captain at the scene was burned so badly that he lost the use of his hands and had to be hospitalized for two months.

The Los Angeles city attorney's office filed more than 300 criminal charges last month against the owner of the building that houses Smoke Tokes and three similar businesses in the area, which is sometimes referred to as "bong row" because of the high concentration of butane, rolling papers and other items related to vaping and smoking that are sold there.

Steve Sungho Lee, the developer who owns the building, has not responded to repeated calls for comment. An attorney representing Smoke Tokes declined to comment on the criminal case or on the inspection history of the business.

John McDevitt, a fire safety expert and former assistant fire chief in Upper Darby, Pa., said the LAFD's failure to inspect the building was a gross oversight, especially given bong row's status as a hub for the sale of explosive and flammable materials.

"The images of the fire clearly show it was not normal combustibles," McDevitt said. "This should have been on someone's radar and not just overlooked."

Jeff Napier, chief inspector at the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety, said the agency would not have been required to perform an inspection at Smoke Tokes after its certificate of occupancy was issued. Records show that the building was granted a certificate of occupancy in 2002.

Online records show that building inspectors visited the Boyd Street address just once between 2002 and the date of the fire, when a proactive code enforcement case was opened in 2008. Napier said such inspections focus "on neighborhood visual blight and quality-of-life issues" but do not "involve inspections of the interior of buildings or their contents."

The Times requested Smoke Tokes' full inspection history last week but had not received a response as of Sunday.

News of the LAFD's failure to inspect the blast site comes after the agency has spent years trying to dig out of a massive backlog of overdue inspections.

A 2015 Times investigation found that the LAFD had fallen months or, in some cases, years behind on inspections of more than 6,800 schools, hotels, high-rise apartment buildings and other structures considered to be high-risk for loss of life in the event of a fire. The department expanded its number of fire inspectors as a result.

The firehouse that would have been responsible for conducting such inspections at the Boyd Street building was the same one many of those injured call home: Station No. 9 in skid row, one of the busiest firehouses in the U.S. Last year, the station logged more than 22,000 emergency calls.

"It was an oversight. It was a mistake. It should have been captured. But knowing [that firehouse] and that area, the call log is extremely busy," Terrazas said. "That's not an excuse, but it's understanding the context."

Days after the blast, Terrazas announced a citywide audit of businesses that store and sell volatile materials. As of Aug. 30, the department had conducted 328 investigations of such businesses and identified 108 that had not previously been in the city's fire prevention database, Terrazas said. The department also issued 64 fire violation notices and ordered 12 businesses shuttered for various safety violations, records provided by the department show.

While the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has yet to issue a report determining the exact cause of the fire, the LAFD's report said the "excessive quantity" of nitrous oxide, or N2O, and butane inside the building was a key factor, causing N2O "chargers" to rupture.

"The release of the oxidizer (N2O) into the fuel-rich atmosphere created a volatile chain of events that caused the spontaneous release of N2O from their containers, supplying the necessary amount of oxygen to support the type of event witnessed at the Boyd Street incident," the LAFD report read. "The incredibly large, violent release of energy was the result of rapidly expanding water vapor, carbon dioxide and extreme heat."

A spokeswoman for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives did not respond to a request for comment on the status of the agency's report.

For years, members of the city's legal cannabis industry have railed against the businesses on bong row, insisting that the wholesalers help fuel unlicensed marijuana dispensaries by supplying them with materials needed to make their own vape pens and other products they cannot purchase from state-approved distributors.

Wes Hein, head of compliance and government affairs for cannabis distributor Mammoth Distribution in Woodland Hills, said he was disappointed by the LAFD's failure to investigate Smoke Tokes.

"It's such a dense area and widely known that they were selling products that could be dangerous," said Hein, noting that legal cannabis operators in the city face rigorous inspections.

After reviewing the LAFD report, McDevitt said that while the firefighters injured in the May blast were lucky to be alive, they would have never been at risk to begin with if the LAFD had handled its inspections properly.

"The nearly deadly circumstances here could have been prevented," he said.

Times Staff Writers Emily Alpert Reyes and Richard Winton contributed to this report.

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