Carlus Hasjim opened the gas jets to a stove in his Van Nuys apartment early Thursday morning, apparently in an apparent to commit suicide, authorities said. He then went into the bathroom and lighted a cigarette.
The blast and fire that followed extensively damaged the 10-unit apartment building at 6858 Kester Ave. Five other people were injured and about 30 others were left homeless. The force of the explosion threw Hasjim, 21, about 50 feet through the back wall of his second-story apartment and into a rear parking lot. He survived with first- and second-degree burns.
Thursday afternoon, Hasjim was arrested on suspicion of recklessly causing a fire, Los Angeles Fire Department officials said.
"He was apparently trying to kill himself when he set the whole thing off," said Inspector Ed Reed, a Fire Department spokesman.
Hasjim, with burns on his face, neck and arms, was in good condition at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center. The other people injured in the 12:02 a.m. explosion received cuts and bruises but were not hospitalized.
The explosion ripped through the square building with a pool and courtyard while many of the tenants were sleeping or watching television.
The blast lifted the roof off the rear of the building, destroyed the apartments on either side of Hasjim's and shattered glass doors and apartment windows a block away. Firefighters extinguished the subsequent fire in the rubble of Hasjim's apartment in about 20 minutes.
"The building is pretty much destroyed," Reed said. "Probably much of it will have to be demolished." He estimated the damage to the building at $200,000.
The apartments on either side of Hasjim's were gutted by the blast, but were vacant when the explosion occurred.
Frank Gallego, 28, who said he was recovering from a recent kidney transplant, was lying on the couch watching TV in the occupied apartment closest to Hasjim's when the explosion sent glass and other debris through his living room. His wife, Lupe, was asleep in a back bedroom.
"I was watching Johnny Carson and the next thing I knew--Kaboom!--all this light and glass was going all over the place," Gallego said. "I was knocked off the couch onto my knees. I thought it was a bomb.
"The first thing I did was run barefoot through the glass to the bedroom. The door was knocked off its hinges, right on to the bed. But my wife was OK."
Descriptions of the explosion offered by other tenants ranged from tornado to plane crash to earthquake.
"I was sound asleep," said Ann Jackson, 72, who lived across the courtyard from Hasjim's apartment. "I heard this big explosion. I thought it was an earthquake. My front door was blown off and I looked across and saw flames. Everybody was running out screaming."
Hasjim was first taken to Northridge Hospital, then to the burn unit at Sherman Oaks Community Hospital and later to the burn ward at County-USC Medical Center.
Arson investigators questioned Hasjim, but officials said it was still not clear whether Hasjim meant to trigger the explosion or was attempting to smoke a cigarette before being overcome by the gas filling his apartment. Investigators said he told them he went into the bathroom to light the cigarette.
"Exactly what he was planning to do and what happened is still a little hazy," Reed said. "He has made statements that contradict the evidence found at the apartment. All we can say is that it is still under investigation."
Reed said reckless causing of a fire is a felony.
Gallego, who said he has been a friend of Hasjim for five months, described Hasjim as an Indonesian who came to Los Angeles to study engineering at UCLA. Gallego said he believes Hasjim was depressed because of financial problems and because he faced being sued as a result of a recent auto accident.
"He told me he got a letter from a lawyer who said he was going to be sued because the accident was his fault," Gallego said. Investigators declined to talk about Hasjim's motives.
Frank Gallego said he feels sorry for Hasjim.
"He is a very smart guy," Gallego said of Hasjim. "That's why this is so hard to believe. He has brains, but on this he made the wrong decision."
After the explosion, the Fire Department declared the building unsafe. Many tenants spent the night outside their building. Others stayed with friends or family. The American Red Cross placed about 14 others in motels and was planning to give the tenants shelter and food until they find new homes.
By Thursday afternoon, a half dozen rental trucks were clustered in front of the building while tenants loaded furniture and clothing. The courtyard was filled with reporters, insurance agents, Red Cross volunteers and neighbors who came to view the damage or help friends move. The water in the pool was dark with soot and debris. Nearby, the Red Cross gave out hot coffee, bagels and Granola bars. A security guard at the front of the apartment kept gawkers away.
Carl Butkovich, who lived next door to Hasjim but was not home when the explosion occurred, stepped over a pile of rubble to get to what had once been his home. Butkovich, 59, an illustrator, said he lost much of his work and most of his belongings except his clothes.
"This was a bedroom and office," he said as he surveyed the damage. "Practically, it is all gone."
Gallego had Ace bandages around both knees and walked in a hobble as he moved about the building. He said he was too hurt to do much lifting.
"The big stuff we can save--the bed and the couch, things like that, our clothes," Lupe Gallego said. Nearby, another tenant emptied a water bed out his window and others carried boxes out to trucks. "We'll have to move to a new place and start again."
Staff photographers Joel P. Lugavere and Boris Yaro contributed to this report.