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Little Tokyo Eyewitnesses Describe Blaze

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Patty Nagano took this photo of the fire in a warehouse on Boyd Street from the sixth floor of Teramachi on Third Street on Saturday evening. In the foreground is The Terpene Lab, formerly the site of Smoke Tokes, which was destroyed in a fire in September 2016

RAFU STAFF REPORT

Witnesses in Little Tokyo describe a frightening scene as an explosion ripped through a single-story warehouse between Third and Boyd streets on Saturday evening.

Patty and Steve Nagano were in their condominium on the north side of Teramachi on Third and San Pedro streets when the heard what they thought was an approaching jet.

“All of a sudden this big ‘Boom!” and you just saw this big burst of cloud of smoke,” Patty said. “Then we went to our friend’s condo, which faces that exact spot over there. We watched from the window. It was horrible.”

They spent the evening answering texts from concerned family and friends. The next day the residents were told to stay indoors.

“Then we were barricaded in. We could leave the area but we couldn’t come back into the crime scene,” Steve explained.

Van Ogami, a Teramachi resident and retired firefighter with the Tahoe Douglas Fire District, went to the roof of the building with a fire extinguisher. He described small metal canisters, still hot from the explosion.

“When I went on the roof I noticed things were falling that were making noise, pieces of metal,” Ogami said.

As investigators launch a criminal probe to determine the cause of the explosion, many noted the CO2 canisters, which littered the streets nearby. This is the second fire in recent years in the smoke shops that have opened to the south of Little Tokyo.

“This is the second fire right across form us in a smoke shop,” Ogami said. “This one was unusual because it got smoky quick, then we started hearing explosions from the CO2 cylinders.”

Investigators on the scene on Monday on Boyd Street. A dozen firefighters were injured battling the fire on Saturday evening. (MARIO GERSHOM REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

Jan Fukuhara, a Teramachi resident, recalling the earlier fire, said they were fortunate that the building is on Boyd and doesn’t face the nearby residential buildings. Besides Teramachi, Casa Heiwa and Little Tokyo Towers are located on Third Street.

“If it was on Third Street, we would have had to evacuate,” she said.

Yuka Kato, who works at the Little Tokyo Service Center, was at the office until 6:30 p.m. that day. “I had just gotten into my car in the parking structure when I heard a loud roar,” she said. “It was too loud to be a helicopter. It sounded like a building was about to collapse. When I exited the garage, there were flames and smoke coming from the roof of the building right in front of me.

Metal CO2 canisters littered nearby streets after Saturday’s fire. (MARIO GERSHOM REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

“I had never felt that kind of fear before. Thinking this was no time to take pictures or anything like that, I put that scene behind me as quickly as I could.

“Later, when I checked the news, it appeared that I had been there immediately after the explosion. It seems that the firefighters who were dispatched when the smoke came out were injured. Scary!

“Probably if I had lingered, the roads in the area would have been blocked and I would have been unable to get home.

“I was surprised but also grateful to receive messages of concern from New York and even Japan.

“Although it was frightening, looking back on it now, I feel very lucky that I was able to get away. The timing was right.”

Michael James, Little Tokyo Business Improvement District commander, who has had military-style training in dismantling IEDs, said, “I have seen the carnage caused by flying pieces of metal. It’s amazing nobody got severely injured by smoking-hot flying CO2 cartridges, pipe glass, etc.”

Little Tokyo BID is planning to do a clean-up once the L.A. Fire Department completes its investigation.

Fire crews at the scene on San Pedro Street on Saturday. (MICHAEL KOMAI/Rafu Shimpo)

Concerns arose Saturday that the Southern California Gardeners Federation building, whose parking lot is adjacent to the Boyd Street structure, might be involved.

“Luckily, there was no damage to our building or the parking lot. It was very close, though,” reported Tom Kasai, insurance administrator for the 600-member association.

Fred Katayama of New York, an anchor at Thomson Reuters and former CNN anchor/correspondent, posted on Facebook, “Eerie feeling. That building that exploded in Los Angeles Saturday night was next to the shop that has the exact same location/address where my grandparents and uncles had run the Toyo Printing Company decades ago.

“My heart goes out to the 11 injured firefighters and their families and loved ones and nearby residents.”

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