A massive blaze and explosion that rocked downtown Los Angeles, forcing firefighters to run through a wall of flames that melted their helmets and coats, is under criminal investigation, authorities said. The fire started Saturday night, in an area dubbed "Bong Row" for its cannabis warehouses and smoke shops, at a business identified as Smoke Tokes, a warehouse distributor with supplies for butane hash oil, according to a Los Angeles Fire Department spokesman.
Carbon dioxide and butane canisters were found in the building,authorities said. Investigators are working to determine if the oil stores may have caused the blast. The fire's cause has not been determined. The business's owners have not commented publicly on the explosion.
Twelve firefighters were injured battling the blaze, and eight remain hospitalized with two in critical condition, the spokesman said. Initial responders saw "light to moderate smoke" coming from the structure. "The building was locked, so the crews had to use power saws to force their way in," LAFD spokesman Capt. Erik Scott told reporters at the scene.
Other firefighters went to the roof to try to ventilate the blaze. Soon, a rumbling, high-pitched sound was heard and everyone was ordered out, Scott said. An explosion rang out, shooting flames and debris and firefighters were forced to run through a fireball that melted their helmets and set their turnout coats ablaze. Scott likened it to fleeing through "a 30-foot-tall blow torch."
"After, on the street you could see the firefighters' protective equipment had been pulled off, coats burned, parts of helmets melted," he said. "The fire truck parked across the street had char on it. The seats in the truck began to burn."
Soaring smoke from the blaze, which spread to adjoining storefronts in the area near Little Tokyo and Skid Row, could be seen across the city. The explosion prompted a "Mayday" call from the scene, and more than 230 firefighters ultimately battled the inferno for more than an hour.
Fire department arson investigators are working with the Los Angeles Police Department's major crime and narcotics divisions, authorities said. A national response team from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives was expected to arrive Monday, authorities said.