The devastating fire that gutted the historic Los Angeles Central Library almost certainly was deliberately set, sources close to the investigation said Thursday.
"We've all but ruled out 'accidental' as the cause," one of the sources told The Times.
"They have a good idea of where (the fire started) and a strong suspicion of arson," another informed source said.
Arson investigators sealed off two areas of the library Thursday and posted firefighters to keep people out of the area, the first source said. One of the areas was reopened after investigators removed potential evidence.
As to specific arson suspects or possible motives, the source said, "I don't think they have gotten that far in their investigation."
Another official who has been briefed on the Fire Department's probe said of the possibility of arson: "It looks like that's where we are headed."
The source said laboratory tests are being conducted to confirm investigators' strong belief that the fire was not accidental. No evidence of an accelerant (material used to speed the spread of the fire) had been found in the library, another source said.
Officially, Los Angeles Fire Department public information offi cers and arson investigators said that although they believe they know the cause of the blaze, they will not reveal whether it was set or was the result of an accident until next week.
The 20-member arson unit has been working virtually around the clock since the fire started Tuesday morning.
Ten arson specialists from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, some from as far away as New Jersey, were scheduled to join the local investigators to help question library staff, patrons and bystanders in the hunt for clues to the origin of the fire, which destroyed 20% of the library's collection of books, documents and photos.
Public service unit Inspector Ed Reed stressed that it is routine procedure in such investigations to question everyone at or near the fire scene and did not imply that anyone in particular is a suspect at this point.
Mayor Tom Bradley told a Thursday afternoon press conference that it could the cost the city as much as $20 million to restore and replace the books and other materials damaged or destroyed in the fire.
He announced the establishment of a phone bank in space donated by Atlantic Richfield Co. to aid in the salvage and restoration of the Central Library collection.
People, groups and companies offering labor or donations were asked to telephone 486-BOOK.
And by late Thursday, hundreds of volunteers had heard the call and went to the library, where they assisted in loading books. Some even provided food and hot coffee for the workers.
Donations of books to replenish the fire-ravaged collection are also being encouraged but will be accepted at a later time, Bradley said.
Donations of money may be sent to Office of the Mayor, Room 305, City Hall, Los Angeles, 90012. Checks should be made out to "Friends of the Library," the mayor said.
A blue-ribbon committee is being formed to help with a fund-raising drive, the mayor said.
"I'm sure that we are going to have the library of the future right here," the mayor predicted, as he stood at the west portal of the burned-out three-story landmark.
Architect Norman Pfeiffer, who is designing the $110-million renovation and expansion of the library, toured the building Thursday and said it is structurally sound.
"I think we're pretty fortunate," he said. "There are some minor, unfortunate problems with artwork. . . . But we haven't lost any murals."
He said that structurally "there is no problem whatsoever," although the heat of the fire caused the concrete to crack and peel from the steel frame in one area, exposing several steel beams.
Even as the mayor spoke, the first of hundreds of thousands of sodden books were being loaded onto large trucks and transported to a cold storage warehouse in downtown Los Angeles. They will be quick-frozen there to prevent formation of paper-threatening mold and mildew. Small teams of library employees and volunteers packed the soggy books into cardboard boxes, which were quickly loaded onto pallets and put into waiting trucks.
Undamaged books will be stored at the Convention Center.
Eric Lundquist, head of a San Francisco document preservation company hired by the city to supervise the salvage operation, said he hoped to have 200 employees and volunteers trained by day's end and as many as 500 people working in three six-hour shifts by the end of the week.
"We hope to have everything that's wet out by Monday night," he said.
Preservationists believe that books must be frozen within 48 to 72 hours to prevent extensive mold or mildew growth.