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Dream Rises at Last on Site of Epic Blaze

January 11, 1987|CARMEN VALENCIA | Times Staff Writer

SANTA FE SPRINGS — The twisted, charred remains of thousands of storage drums that exploded with fury five years ago have long since been hauled away from a triangular-shaped parcel at Imperial Highway and Marquardt Avenue.

A chain-link fence surrounding the property is gone, too, along with the sticky residue left from the spectacular 1981 fire that consumed the entire lot and lit up a midnight sky with 100-foot fireballs.

The lot is taking on a new look now, with the skeletal frame of a new warehouse under construction.

Dream Coming True

"My dream is finally coming true," said William Boyer, owner of Marathon Cartage Co., which will move to the new facility from its current site on Los Nietos Road.

Boyer purchased the three-acre parcel in 1979 to house his toiletries distribution company, but his plans were at first delayed by the discovery of the drums filled with paint and paint byproducts; then the site was consumed by a disastrous chemical fire.

The blaze took almost a day to put out, and at its peak was doused with 1 million gallons of water an hour by 28 engine companies. More than 250,000 fish would die from the runoff that poured into Coyote Creek and the San Gabriel River.

But headaches concerning the property didn't stop once the fire was extinguished.

Enmeshed in Lawsuits

The city, former and current property owners, and various local, state and federal agencies became enmeshed in lawsuits and countersuits that are finally nearing settlement after more than five years.

A $1.5-million cleanup by the federal Environmental Protection Agency followed the fire, after officials found that the 12,000 55-gallon drums stored on the property before the fire contained toxic chemicals. It was the second site where federal Superfund money was used for a cleanup because of the potential contamination to nearby businesses and homes. The federal government is now seeking reimbursement from several parties, including Boyer.

Once the cleanup was finished and a clay cap placed on the top of the property, construction of Boyer's building was delayed by the state until extensive tests could prove that the soil posed no harm to surrounding development.

"I spent five years negotiating with the State of California to prove there was nothing there. They said it was a danger to the neighborhood," Boyer said.

A court last year allowed Boyer to move forward.

Boyer also had to meet conditions by the city--including the installation of a methane gas shield to stop gasses from an adjacent landfill from migrating to the development--before beginning construction on the 12,000-square-foot building, which is to be completed in March.

Concern About Soil

George Beaty, city assistant director of planning, said "there was concern" that some of the soil was contaminated from the fire. However, tests showed there were "insignificant" amounts of contamination.

The things that happened after the fire were not the only problems that Boyer had encountered.

When Boyer first purchased the property in 1979, he said he had no idea that the drums stacked on it contained hazardous chemicals. The lot contained several junked cars and other debris, which obscured the drums from view. When he tried to claim his property, he said, tenant Francis J. Stankevich refused to move.

After negotiations with the city and police, Boyer said he received permission to go on the property, and he began clearing the lot, eventually working his way toward the drums stored in the back.

Two weeks later, the state Department of Health Services was tipped that hazardous material was in the drums and the entire site had to be fenced and closed to all human contact until the drums were removed.

Boyer then began publicizing the fact that thousands of drums were just sitting there, potential bombs if there was ever a fire. Rallies were held and petitions circulated in an attempt to get some public agency to move the drums. The Santa Fe Springs Fire Department had been pressuring the previous property owners, Boyer and Stankevich for four years to remove the drums, said Fire Chief Robert C. Wilson.

Arsonist Never Caught

Then, on July 10, 1981, an arsonist--who was never caught--lobbed several Molotov-cocktail type devices into the property, fire officials said.

"Trash cans started going everywhere, shooting flames all over. Particles that were aflame started shooting all over," said Cheryl Green, who lives in the La Mirada house closest to the property. Green said she saw the fire start, slowly at first, and then explode "in a nuclear-like cloud, just like that."

Stories about the fire have reached almost legendary proportions among city fire officials.

"Firemen today still talk about that fire. Of all the fires I've been to, that one sticks out to be the biggie," said Battalion Chief Norbert Schnabel, who has been a firefighter for 21 years. Schnabel said firefighters had to battle the blaze from outside the fence because the drums kept going off one by one, exploding into huge fireballs that reached as high as 100 feet.

"This thing got worse and worse," he said.

Although Boyer is spending $500,000 to build the warehouse, he said when it is finished it will be the "most expensive building in the world" after costs for cleanup, soil tests and other remedies are calculated.

"In the beginning, if I could have walked away from it, I would have," Boyer said. "Now I'm getting my building six years later. If that's my hardship in life, I'll accept that."

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