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Explosion Causes California Apartment Blaze

Aired May 24, 2002 - 15:17   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: We are continuing to follow this breaking news story out of Encino, California for you, where earlier today, just after 11:00 West Coast time, an explosion was heard and felt at a condominium complex right there off Newcastle in Encino, California. And then shortly thereafter there was fire.

Residents have described seeing the blaze there. We are seeing now that firefighter units are on the scene trying to control the blaze. Debris was strewn about.

This is a three-story condominium complex. There are reports that the explosion may have originated on a second-floor unit. We don't know exactly what caused the explosion. A crew from the Southern California Gas Company has been dispatched and they are on their way, but they say it's too early to discern what may have caused this explosion and whether in any way any gas unit may have been involved in this explosion. We just don't know.

We also do not know whether there are any significant injuries that have occurred. It is a pretty significant fire there and the explosion took place in what is an occupied building there. But we don't know if it was occupied at the time of the explosion. You are looking at pictures from overhead brought to us by our affiliate there in the Los Angeles County area.

We have got joining us now from the Los Angeles County Fire Department Bob Collis. Bob, what can you tell us about what your firefighters are up against there as they battle this blaze?

BOB COLLIS, LOS ANGELES COUNTY FIRE DEPARTMENT: We got the call a little after 11:00 this morning; 5300 block of Newcastle Avenue in the Encino part of Los Angeles, San Fernando Valley. We had six engines respond there, and we're up to 26 engines at this point, which is 130 firefighters.

They got on scene. It was a three-story either apartment or condo complex that had just been shattered by an explosion of some sort. That's how we got the call, it was an explosion. We'll probably have numerous injuries. So far all I know is that we transported one person to an area hospital with critical burns.

We do have 12 ambulances on scene, along with our medical director, to coordinate the medical side of it. About a third of the people we have on scene are structure firefighting, and the balance are rescue and medical priorities.

WHITFIELD: And we saw some pictures a bit earlier, Bob, where firefighters were piercing through the rooftop of a nearby unit. Would they be at this point ready to enter those units, or is that some other strategy to help fight the blaze or give them a better handle of being able to fight the blaze?

COLLIS: Well, that initial -- because of the size, I saw this initially. It was just a free-burning great huge fire that's probably a large structure. Probably 200 by 200 maybe, an estimate from what I can tell from the television helicopters. And all you can do is just put copious amounts of water on that, and as you get the fire knocked down you can make a closer attack on the fire.

And, as you see now, it's pretty well knocked down. And they'll be making entry, provided that the remaining walls are safe to be adjacent to. That's one of the problems with explosions, because the integrity of the whole building is going to be compromised.

WHITFIELD: Sure, especially since we are hearing from some witnesses through our reporting there in Los Angeles County who were saying that they were hearing other minor explosions. So that, of course, bringing added caution to the firefighters on the scene there.

COLLIS: Secondary explosions, you are exactly right. Now we don't know the cause of this major explosion, the first one. The first thing that comes to mind is natural gas, but then we don't know that at this point. And there is speculation that some of the residents of this structure are elderly and possibly using oxygen and that that may be some of the other explosions that -- or noises that they heard in the secondary explosions at this point. But that, again, will be found out in the investigation.

WHITFIELD: You're obviously a lot more familiar with that area than I am, but all I know is that's a pretty compacted residential community. You mentioned in that particular condominium complex, there may be an awful lot of residents who are elderly. What more can you tell us about that general vicinity and what can you tell us about the residents in that general vicinity?

COLLIS: Demographics, I really don't have information on, but we just heard the speculation that some in this particular building are elderly folks. But as you can see from the television shots, it's just very densely compacted with structures there, apartments or condominium complexes.

And it was a little -- there's a lot of hydrants around, water resources for the fire, but the fact that you had to drag lines down allies and between buildings to get to the fire, our resources -- our ground resources could get in there, but the engines and the trucks had to stay away because they just couldn't get in there because the high density of the buildings there.

WHITFIELD: So the reports of the explosion started coming in somewhere around the 11:00 hour your time? If that's the case, and if this is a community where an awful lot of people would work, then perhaps it would be great if most people were not in their units. But, of course, the flip side of that, if it does indeed turn out to be a community that you describe could be one inhabited mostly by elderly people, than there would be more people than would normally be expected in a unit at that time.

COLLIS: You are correct there. If it's elderly folks, they would probably be in the building as opposed to out working or away for the day. We got this call, as I mentioned, as an explosion and with no other information on it, and we did increase our resources. Right as our first resources got on the scene, they started asking for additional. At this point we have...

WHITFIELD: Now, Bob, what you said, there are about 130 firefighters, about 26 engines, as you described, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) used to structural fires out there. That they would be responding to this kind of garden apartment style apartment would be fairly typical in that area?

All right. We are going to bring in Robert Franco, a battalion chief there. If you can hear me, Mr. Franco...

ROBERT FRANCO, L.A. FIRE BATTALION CHIEF: Yes I can. It's Franco.

WHITFIELD: OK. Well, what are you all up against there? I understand that you have got about 130 firefighters on the scene.

FRANCO: That's about right. We have 33 fire companies on the scene, 11 rescue ambulances, eight battalion chief command teams. And what we had encountered was slightly after 11:00 a.m. this morning. We got a call there was an explosion in an apartment house.

And when we rolled up on scene, we had a three-story apartment, a garden style apartment, with at least three of the units burning on three separate floors. And initially it looked like just a routine fire. But as we started to make the entries, we noticed that there were parts of the building that were collapsed.

So it was determined to be an explosion. We had to go on a defensive mode (ph) at that time, which meant we didn't do an interior check, we pulled back for the safety of our members. And they made an aggressive attack from the exterior.

At this present time, we do have three people that were transported to the local area hospitals; one with critical burns, third-degree burns. And the fire fight is still on. We've got portions of the building that are collapsed and that have fire burning underneath it. So we're getting ready to send in our teams with saws and (UNINTELLIGIBLE) to set open areas and begin extinguishing the fire.

I would imagine we're going to be here another three or four hours. The cause of the fire is still under investigation. Again, it was determined to be an explosion, but as of what caused it, we don't know. We're expecting natural gas. The gas company is on scene. And, again, we'll be here for several hours. WHITFIELD: Now, Robert, we're looking at some pictures that you are obviously unable to see, but perhaps you see it while you are on the ground there of pretty sizable contingent of police officers on motor bikes. What would their roll be while helping you all?

FRANCO: Well, just preserving the scene to make sure that this investigation is complete. That we explore all avenues as to the cause of this fire. Our arson unit is on scene and ready to go in with their dogs and their investigation team to get an exact cause of this fire.

Again, it is under investigation. We're not speculating as to the cause of the fire. We do know that the mayor is en route to this particular scene. And, again, we will be here for several hours mopping this one up.

WHITFIELD: Now, just moments ago, Bob Collis was also with us on the telephone there. And he was describing this just may, I stress the word "may," be an area that is inhabited by a lot of elderly people. What do you know about this building or this area that you were all able to respond to?

FRANCO: Well, that's a pretty fair assessment for this area. The valley, this is where in the west end of the San Fernando Valley. However, we didn't encounter any particular problems with that at the scene. We evacuated a number of people. The majority of them were ambulatory. They were able to get out under their own power.

Again, we don't -- at this point in time, we've only -- we have about three people that we transported.

WHITFIELD: So do you have a handle as to how much time elapsed from the initial explosion to the fire? Was there enough time in between that perhaps people were able to respond to the explosion and get out of the fire?

FRANCO: Apparently so, because, as I said earlier, at this point in time we don't have anything more severe than just one third-degree burn, and the other two were minor at this time. So apparently so, we didn't have any reports of people being trapped. We don't know of any casualties at this point. So I believe that there was sufficient time for the people to exit the building.

WHITFIELD: All right. Well, that is good news for now. And you and your teams be safe out there. Appreciate very much. I think you said Robert Frank (sic), right? People call you Franco?

FRANCO: Franco is my name. It is Franco. They call me Frank. But the name is Franco. All right.

WHITFIELD: OK. All right. Thanks very much. Thanks for joining us. I appreciate it.

FRANCO: You're welcome.

WHITFIELD: OK, a quick recap now then. Firefighters are on the scene of this pretty aggressive fire there at a three-story garden apartment there. Franco there just telling us that it is inhabited mostly by an awful lot of elderly people. But it appears that the initial explosion that took place just around the 11:00 hour West Coast time, when that occurred, people were able to respond rather quickly and start exiting the building before a pretty significant fire got underway.

So far, we are being told that no other reported injuries except that there is one person who was -- who is being treated for third degree burns there. So, thankfully, so far it looks like many people managed to escape any serious injury. However, firefighters, and now coupled by some police investigators there, cops on the motor bikes, are now trying to secure the area to make sure there are no other kind of chain reaction explosions that could be taking place.

Many of the firefighters still keeping significant distance, using their fire hose to put out that fire because, of course, it is still a very volatile situation and they don't want anyone else to be hurt besides that one person that is reported injured. They certainly don't want any more injuries to occur.

So this taking place in Encino, California, just south of 101 freeway at the Newcastle Condominiums there. It's a pretty compacted area, residential community. There are an awful lot of apartment complexes and condominiums. This one right here getting all the attention on Newcastle. And thus far, investigators feel like they are getting the upper hand of what was a pretty sizable explosion and fire earlier today.

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