For 14 years, Colleen Fowler built Fowler's Gun Shop into one of the most successful hunting and fishing equipment stores in Southern California, drawing gun and sport enthusiasts from as far as San Diego and Bakersfield.
But longtime employees said Fowler never quite got over her fear that her Pasadena area store, which carried explosives and live ammunition, was a powder keg ready to explode at the slightest mishap.
When she remodeled the shop three years ago, they said, Fowler made sure that every possible step had been taken to prevent a major fire. She secured gunpowder in a heavily fortified metal vault and insisted that only fire-retardant material be used in the remodeling.
"She had a thing about fire," Leonard Knolhoff, an employee, said. "She was extremely afraid of it. It was her greatest fear."
Fire Started in Basement
Last Wednesday, in the kind of explosion Fowler so dreaded, fire ripped through the two-story gun shop, killing the 58-year-old woman, her 40-year-old son, Mike, and two employees. All had been trapped inside the building on Rosemead Boulevard, just south of Colorado Boulevard, at about 8:45 a.m. when a small fire in the basement touched off a massive explosion that reverberated for blocks.
Fire officials believe that one of Fowler's last acts before she died was to hand her 3-year-old granddaughter to employee Brent Hanson. Hanson dragged himself and the child to safety but not before the girl was critically injured with second- and third-degree burns on her face, neck and chest. She was airlifted to the burn unit at Brotman Memorial Hospital in Culver City.
Firefighters recovered three bodies Wednesday night and a fourth Thursday morning from deep inside the debris. Family members identified the dead as the two Fowlers; Laurie Henderson, 36, and Bob Ellington, about 70. Ellington was Henderson's father.
As arson investigators sifted through the debris last week, neighbors and customers gathered outside the wrecked building and recalled the first time they had walked inside the gun shop.
Civil War Collection
They said the 10,000-square-foot building was decorated in western style, with Confederate money and pictures of Teddy Roosevelt, Gen. George Custer and Ulysses S. Grant. The Fowlers took great pride in a collection of Civil War-era guns displayed in the showroom. Many of those guns survived the blaze.
"It was a great place, with antique rifles on display and walls filled with the best hunting and fishing equipment anywhere," said Rick Beckman of Burbank. "When I got back into fishing a few years ago, they told me where the spots were, what fish were biting and anything I needed to know. It was the ultimate sports store. I'm really going to miss it."
Neighbors said Fowler lived in a neat yellow home just across the street from the shop. They said her former husband, Sam, opened the business in 1971 after he started collecting Civil War memorabilia and so much of it was guns.
'Neiman-Marcus of Gun Stores'
When the couple divorced a few months later, Colleen Fowler took over the business. Neighbors said with the help of her two sons, Brad and Mike, Fowler worked long hours and quickly built a reputation for stocking a wide variety of handguns, shotguns, rifles and fishing equipment. It wasn't uncommon to see police officers and Pasadena grandmothers shopping side by side for ammunition.
"You name it, and we carried it," Knolhoff said. "We were the Neiman-Marcus of gun stores. We had attorneys, judges, doctors and engineers from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory shopping here."
The Fowlers refused to sell cheap handguns commonly known as "Saturday Night Specials." But they did receive adverse publicity when it was revealed that the gunman who had assassinated Turkish Consul General Kemal Arikan in Los Angeles in 1981 purchased his handgun at Fowler's.
Because the store did not open until 10 a.m., most of the employees had not arrived for work the day of the fire. They theorized that Mike Fowler, the store's manager, arrived early Wednesday to take target practice in a shooting room in the basement.
Gunpowder in Vault
In a separate part of the basement, they said, about 100 pounds of gunpowder was stored in the vault. They said it was highly unlikely that gunfire set off the blaze because bullets were shot through a special fireproof tube. Any residue smoke from the gunfire was designed to be carried outside through a suction vent.
"I've been turning this over in my mind, and I just can't figure out what happened down in the basement to cause this thing," Knolhoff said.
Knolhoff, a 63-year-old retired electrical foreman with the City of Glendale, said he was a longtime customer of the gun shop. Bored with retirement, he got a job there in 1979. He said he and Ellington and several other elderly employees became close friends.
"I've known the Fowlers for a number of years. Mike and I used to go pheasant and duck hunting," Knolhoff said. "Colleen was the kind of boss who would celebrate our birthdays by buying a cake with our names on it.
"What's so puzzling about this fire is that everything was so secure. There was nothing flammable left out in the open. Everything was built with a great deal of care."