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Breaking News

Fire Erupts in California Apartment Building

Aired May 24, 2002 - 14:56   ET


FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: We're keeping an eye on this breaking news out of Encino, California, where investigators and firefighters are on the scene there, of what was first an explosion and now it's a fire, at a three-story apartment building, or possibly a condominium complex in Encino, just south of the 101 freeway.

You are looking at coverage from KABC. Let's listen in, if there is anything more to glean from this investigation.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This person was not injured. And let's hope that's the case for most of the folks that lived around here. Although, again, we are hearing that at least one person was badly burned. Somebody probably very close to this unit, or maybe even in the unit.

And I would expect, just by the -- and you can see this as we pan around. These are different units, not the one that exploded, but the ones that are nearby. And you can see that the windows are blown out from the explosion. The firefighters have their backs to those units. As the cameraman pans around, you can see all of the windows, all of them, all three floors, blown out from the force of the explosion.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes, and three additional battalion chiefs are being requested by the chief who is on the scene. Also, we are getting reports that they are continuing to have minor explosions inside the building. So that is according to information that's being released over the radios right now.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If there is something that's causing these explosions. If it was a gas explosion -- and we were sort of discounting that a little while ago, simply because of the bomb squad being called -- if it was a gas explosion, there would be an explosion and then the gas would burn until they shut it off.

But in this case, if they're having secondary explosions, there must be something inside that is of an explosive nature. Now, this can be anything. It could be SCUBA tanks. There are all kinds of things that can explode, aerosol cans and other things. Natural gas lines that the fire reaches.

But they also could be, if there was some sort of explosive material that caused this explosion in the first place, there could be other pockets or canisters, or whatever of that material that are causing these secondary explosions that we keep hearing about. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: OK, as we near the noon hour, obviously this is a story that we will continue to follow throughout the day. But we'll bring you up-to-date on exactly what has happened now. You're looking at the scene of breaking news in Encino.

All this happening just around 11:00. This was an explosion and a huge fire at this condo complex.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Let me interrupt you, Cathy. As we look down, it looks like a range or a refrigerator that's been blown out of this unit, and ended up in the swimming tool, the deep end.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The damage and the debris is just incredible from this. 5300 Newcastle is the location. This is a three-story condo complex. Earlier information said that something had happened possibly on the second floor.

Numerous people have been injured. They are trying to treat them as they find them. They're having to go over this area, a very densely populated area. We had a report of a person in a wheelchair being taken out. Also a 57-year-old man, possibly trapped right now in his unit. And several other victims, including one who was treated in the alley with third-degree burns.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Now, for those of you -- and we've had to interrupt "Port Charles" to bring you this breaking story in Encino, those of you who would like the watch the episode that you missed today, "Port Charles," we ask you to turn on your VCRs and set them for Monday morning, 4:00 a.m.

Monday morning, 4:00, "Port Charles" will be played in its entirety, if you set your VCR. We wouldn't expect you to get up at 4:00 in the morning on a holiday. But set your VCR, and you can certainly watch all of "Port Charles" and not miss a thing.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We invite you to stay with us, too, throughout the day here. ABC 7 will continue to update this story. We'll let you know how the investigation is going. We can tell you at this point, the LAPD has requested the bomb squad come to the area. So we expect to learn more from them. And we'll also have an update on the number of injuries.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This has been our continuing coverage of this breaking story in Encino....

WHITFIELD: And we continue to keep a close eye for you on this breaking news, out of Encino, California. Now our picture is coming from KTLA, where there are at least 16 Los Angeles County fire units, amounting to up to 80 firefighters on the scene there, trying to contain the fire that has taken place there, after explosions or at least one explosion was reported.

One eyewitness, one person who lives in the area, said she felt a jolt, and the next thing you know, she went out on the rooftop and she saw the flames taking place. She knew it wasn't an earthquake. She said it felt very differently there. This is a condominium complex that is located on Newcastle just south of the 101 freeway in Encino. That area as been described as many -- as a very compacted residential community, that there were an awful lot of apartment complexes and condominiums there.

And now the pictures that we are seeing there from our affiliate from the air, you are seeing some of the billowing smoke there, perhaps an indication that investigators are trying to get a -- or are getting a better handle -- the firefighters are getting a better handle of the blaze there. All kinds of debris has been described as being strewn about there. Smaller portions of debris and as big as, what one reporter described as a refrigerator, that had been strewn from one of the units and into the swimming pool in that area.

No reports, though, yet of injuries -- significant injuries. At least one person has been treated there and one of the reporters also described that perhaps one resident may be trapped in the area. But we don't have any confirmation of that. And if there are indeed any injuries or people being treated or even the cause of this explosion. It took place shortly after 11:00 West Coast time.

Investigators able to get to the scene as fast as they could. Once they got there, they noticed a huge fire already underway and they have been trying to contain that fire ever since.

We're also keeping an eye for you, another breaking story taking place further north up the coast there, but we'll stay on these pictures in Encino, California. Where in San Francisco, investigators are looking into a shooting that took place there earlier about a couple of hours ago. Four people were shot when at least one gunman opened fire at 22nd Street and Mission Street in San Francisco in the mission district. We're keeping an eye on that.

But for now, we're concentrating on what is taking place in Encino, California. We are going to listen now to KCAL, our affiliate in Los Angeles.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Firefighters said that they had a wall that moved about six inches, and as we are hearing from some of the people nearby like Jess (ph) and Everett Betts (ph), who we talked to a while ago, there was quite a blast felt in some ways away. Jess (ph) is about three, three and a half blocks away, and he felt a pretty good shaking after hearing that initial blast.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The man we were speaking to previously, Everett Betts (ph), saying that he had debris in his courtyard and he was some 100 feet away there. So Derek Bell in Sky 9 also telling us there's quite a large debris field there.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Derek, it looks like the firefighting effort here is paying off. Looks like we are not seeing the flames certainly that we were seeing before.

DEREK BELL, REPORTER: That's right. As you can see, from our vantage point here the fire is being attacked from both the left and the right of your screen. That's the north and the south. It looks as though they have a number of firefighters that are inside the apartment complex with those high-pressure hoses. They are attacking it from inside now.

When we first arrived, they were largely attacking it from the outside and just a little bit from the garage area -- or I should say from the parking lot area. They have got a lot more resources now in position where they can put that water directly on the fire. Even though it's a large area that has burned, they now have a large volume of water on it.

Much more white smoke than we have seen previously, and we have to believe no matter how much fuel they have down there that was on fire, they will quickly get an upper hand on this one right now.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Derek, so you mentioned that the firefighters now have actually gone on inside to that adjacent building that caught fire?

BELL: Well if pull out just a little bit, you can see the streams to the left. As was mentioned before, it's a courtyard type of apartment building. What they have done is they've situated themselves across the courtyard in some of the upper balconies where they get a good view of the fire and put those high-pressure hoses directly on to the flame from across the courtyard.

Again, it's difficult to see from the right side now, but they have got good access from the parking lot area so they are fighting that from the north side as well as from the south side.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Derek, we were talking with one of the neighbors there a second ago, and he said that they had to evacuate people out of that building. Any idea yet where the people might be housed right now?

BELL: It's difficult to say right now. Generally, they will bring in the Red Cross, who will coordinate any sort of housing or feeding efforts for the people that have been displaced. Looking around right now, we don't see those units on the scene quite yet. They may just be blocked from our vantage point.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Derek, you mentioned that you noticed a number of ambulances there at the scene. Have you seen anyone transported yet?

BELL: We have not seen any of those ambulances move as of yet. We did have those previous reports about at least one person that was critically injured. That person may have been transported before we arrived. But we haven't seen any rescue ambulances leave the scene.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The bad news in all of this is if there was anyone in that immediate area, it would not bode well for them right now, judging by the descriptions of the blast we heard -- these people heard.

BELL: Well that's correct. Anybody who was in that immediate vicinity of course it was at least a very, very scary situation and of course we have got unconfirmed reports that one person may have lost his or her life in the explosion.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Derek, the debris field that you showed us early on, that large debris field, can you see it still?

BELL: That's right. It's just to the bomb right of the screen. You can see a lot of debris that's out in the parking lot. That apparently was thrown out into the parking lot. If we pull out and pan to the left, we can see the top of the building that was about 100 feet away. We presume that's where that caller was living.

And right there at the bottom left of the screen, there is a fair amount of debris that is on top of that apartment building. Again, one apartment building to the south, a little bit of debris there, but certainly quite a distance away.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The description that one of the neighbors that we were talking to was giving us about the debris that landed in his courtyard, he said there were large, like 4x4 pieces of wood, that saying if those pieces of debris had hit anyone, they could have gotten seriously injured.

BELL: Oh, indeed. We don't see any of that from our vantage point, of course. Much of that likely would have landed down in the bottom portion of the courtyard, which now is completely obscured by smoke, as you can see. But of course, we're going to continue to look for any sort of that debris in the area.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Just judging by their descriptions, Everett and Jess telling us -- especially Everett, when he was talking about the debris blowing over to his place, it had to go all the way over that building between his building and the one where the blast occurred. That's quite a blast up in the air there to get things all the way -- get the debris field that far.

BELL: It certainly is. A 100-feet radius wouldn't sound out of the ordinary -- or, I'm sorry, unbelievable at this time. That's what we are seeing, a lot of debris strewn about. So even 100 feet away, quite a blast and certainly believable from our vantage point here at Sky 9.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And even to feel the shaking three and a half blocks away on this separate street on Ventura, you know, it's got to know that it has to be a sizable explosion there.

BELL: Most certainly, very much so. Certainly had to be quite a large blast to level what we saw was three stories of the structure completely down.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: So, Derek, you're telling us the explosion leveled that unit there. It wasn't the fire had destroyed it by the time firefighters got to it.

BELL: That's right. As we started hearing it, the initial reports were there was an explosion and nobody saw any smoke or flame for some five minutes until the fire department arrived. And that's when it really, really kicked up. So one has got to believe that the lion's portion of the damage that occurred to this one area as we swing around to get a better view from it, we're now looking to the north. As we come around and look at it to the south, we have to believe the lion's share of the damage to that unit was due to the blast itself.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And that would be consistent with reports we were getting from Everett and Jess, that they first noticed the smoke going for a little while before they actually saw the fire kick up.

BELL: Indeed. And that goes along with the other descriptions that people had about the blast itself, about the intensity of the shaking, the intensity of the blast you have heard some three blocks away, and the intensity of it when it -- close up, some of the people that were much, much closer.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: All right. Now, the firefighting efforts staying now focused on that building to the right of where the explosion happened?

BELL: Both to the right and to the left. We still have got a portion of that three-story structure. It looks as though some firefighters are making a stand up there. We also have other firefighters to the west making sure that the fire does not come any more towards what appears to be a two-story portion of the structure.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have not yet heard from firefighters on this, an official spokesman for the fire department. We are still waiting to confirm whether there were any casualties involved in the blast that happened on Newcastle -- 5300 block of Newcastle in Encino. But you are looking at the ensuing fire after an explosion there about 45 minutes ago.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We are going to continue to keep an eye on this for you and take a quick break and we'll be right back.

WHITFIELD: All right. And we are keeping an eye on things for you as well out of Encino, California, where that explosion now and that fire is still being handled by the 16 or so units of firefighters there, amassing up to about 80 firefighters on the scene there just south of the 101 freeway.

You're looking now at pictures from KTLA from the air, giving us kind of a bird's eye view of how much debris was strewn about and how many firefighter units are now on the scene trying to get some control of the blaze. No reports as of yet -- or no updates, rather, of those who may have been injured or how this explosion took place. You are seeing the sign now of Newcastle Gardens, next to the three-story apartment building or condominium complex where the explosion rocked that area just after 11:00 West Coast time.

People who live in the area say they felt a jolt. They heard the explosion. It didn't feel like an earthquake, so that wasn't their immediate reaction. And when they got on the rooftop and saw that there were flames coming from that complex, they realized at that point that there was a pretty significant problem and something strange had happened. That explosion preceding what is now appearing to be an out of control fire that firefighters are now trying to contain.

We are going to go now to this Los Angeles fire spokesperson who commented on this probe just moments ago.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, initially, the obvious thing that would be investigated would be natural gas -- leaking natural gas. But until the fire is out, there won't be able to determine that. If it was leaking in the outside of the structure, like in the meter area there, if it wasn't destroyed in the explosion, the fire department can handle that. But if it's totally destroyed because of the explosion, the gas company, which probably is on scene by this time, they will have to handle that.

But again, that's just speculation. We just don't know what caused the explosion at this time.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: OK. And you have right now 80 firefighters on the scene...


WHITFIELD: All right. It's still unclear as to what caused that explosion. What fire investigators do know is they have got a pretty major fire on their hand at that three-story condominium complex in Encino, California there in Los Angeles County. KTLA helping to provide this team coverage visuals for us now. Let's listen in and see if they have any more information on this fire.

All right. Well, just recapping now all that we know on this situation in Encino, that an explosion occurred. And shortly thereafter they had themselves a pretty significant fire underway. We don't know how many people may have been in that condominium complex when it occurred, when that explosion occurred, or when it then spread to fire. We don't have any knowledge at this point of those who may have been injured either.

All we know is that about 17 fire units are on the scene there, amounting up to about 80 firefighters who are trying to battle that blaze. This is about as close as we are able to get thanks to our affiliate helicopters providing some pictures there. We have seen debris, small pieces of debris and as large as appliances, and now you are seeing the firefighters start to break through the rooftops of the condominiums there, the units nearby that blaze.

There have been some reports of smaller minor explosions. We don't have any explanation as to why that's taken place after the more grand explosion that occurred just prior to the sightings of the flames engulfing that complex.