Criminal probe launched into L.A. building explosion amid questions about stored oils

Richard Winton, Hailey Branson-Potts, Alex Wigglesworth
Firefighters received a call about 6:30 p.m. Saturday about a structure fire in the 300 block of Boyd Street south of Little Tokyo, said Erik Scott, a Los Angeles Fire Department spokesman.  (Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

A criminal investigation is underway into an explosion in downtown Los Angeles on Saturday that injured 12 firefighters and left several buildings damaged, several law enforcement sources told The Times, and officials are looking at whether oils stored there might have sparked the blast.

The Los Angeles Police Department along with local fire investigators and the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are working together on the probe.

An initial investigation of the scene identified the business where a fire broke out as Smoke Tokes, a warehouse distributor with supplies for butane hash oil. The law enforcement sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment publicly, stressed that the probe is in its early stages and that it's unclear if there was any criminal conduct.

The cause of the fire has not been determined. The owners of Smoke Tokes could not be reached for comment.

Nicholas Prange, an LAFD spokesman, said carbon dioxide and butane canisters were found inside the building but that it was still not clear what caused the blast.

"We are in the early stages of an investigation. We are looking at every aspect at this stage. We haven’t determined a cause,” LAPD Assistant Chief Horace Frank said. “The explosion was massive and those firefighters are very lucky to be alive. Skill and awareness is the reason they were able to get out from an incredibly dangerous situation.”

The Criminal Conspiracy Section of the Major Crimes Division and the Lab Squad of the Gang Narcotics Division are leading the LAPD's part of the investigation, Frank said.

The explosion occurred in a stretch of downtown dubbed by police as "Bong Row" because of the high number of cannabis, CBD and pipe businesses.

In 2016, there was another major fire at a business called Smoke Tokes at an address nearby on 3rd Street.

It took more than 160 firefighters about two hours to put out that blaze, with the flames largely confined to the wholesaler and distributor of smoking paraphernalia, the Los Angeles Times reported at the time.

Firefighters encountered pressurized gas cylinders that exploded amid the inferno, fire officials said. “It was a tricky fire for us,” LAFD Battalion Chief Mark Curry said back then. “We had multiple explosions going off inside the fire while it was burning due to the butane containers releasing.”

There were no injuries in the 2016 fire. The LAFD later said in a statement that firefighters who entered the building found “intense fire in dense and highly flammable storage that included pressurized flammable gas cylinders, several of which were heard to explode.”

It was unclear whether that business and the one that burned Saturday were connected.

In March, an explosion at another business nearby left three people injured. Witnesses said there was a loud “boom” and fireball at 743 Kohler St. The blast sent a plume of black smoke hundreds of feet into the air that could be seen for miles. Officials at the time did not reveal the kind of business involved, and the cause was unclear.

In the lastest explosion, firefighters first received a call about 6:30 p.m. Saturday about a structure fire in the 300 block of Boyd Street south of Little Tokyo.

The explosion that followed damaged several storefronts, melted fire helmets and left one fire truck burned and covered in debris. Officials said firefighters had to pass through a fireball to escape.

“Firefighters were coming out with obvious damage and burns,” said Erik Scott, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Fire Department.

They ran “straight through that ball of flame to get to safety across the street,” Scott said.

Eleven firefighters received treatment for burn injuries at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center, according to the LAFD. A 12th firefighter was treated and released at the emergency room Saturday night for “a minor extremity injury,” said LAFD spokesman Prange.

As of Sunday morning, three firefighters had been discharged from the hospital. Eight remained hospitalized, including two in critical but stable condition.

All were expected to survive, officials said. Doctors at the medical center said one of the firefighters would likely need skin grafts.

The fire was put out an hour and 42 minutes after the call came in, authorities said.

LAFD Chief Ralph M. Terrazas said the firefighters responding to the call sensed something was wrong inside the building but could not escape before the explosion.

Initially, officials could not account for all the firefighters.

In an LAFD radio transmission, an official is heard screaming, “Mayday! Explosion! I have two down firefighters.”

“When one of your own is injured ... you can imagine the amount of mental stress,” Terrazas said. “A lot of our firefighters were traumatized.”

Times staff writer Liam Dillon contributed to this report.