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Arson Fire, Explosion Gang Up on Apartment Residents : 8 Injured by Gas Blast in Hawthorne

December 02, 1987|KAREN ROEBUCK | Times Staff Writer

An unsuccessful alleged suicide attempt caused a natural gas explosion that destroyed an eight-unit apartment building in Hawthorne Tuesday morning and left eight people injured, investigators said.

Fire officials and witnesses were amazed that none of the building's approximately 20 residents was killed.

"The people who live here were extremely fortunate," Hawthorne Fire Chief Roger Milstead said. "The explosion and resulting fire were immediate. There was no way to defend against it."

Windows and doors were blown out in neighboring buildings, and nearby residents said the noise, ground movement and window-rattling made them think it was an earthquake.

Bruce Wiedensohler, 31, received the only serious injuries and was listed in critical condition with burns over 40% of his body at Torrance Memorial Hospital's burn center. Wiedensohler did not speak to fire officials but indicated by nodding his head that he was trying to commit suicide, Battalion Chief Dave Beichner said. Six other people in the area were treated and a firefighter suffered a sprained ankle.

Wiedensohler's neighbors in the two-story building at 4386 West 138th St. said they smelled strong gas odors Monday night and early Tuesday, but no one reported them to the Southern California Gas Co., according to company spokeswoman Sharon Bryant.

Investigators believe that a valve was disconnected from Wiedensohler's stove Monday night, but investigators have not determined what ignited the gas, Hawthorne city spokesman Tom Quintana said.

City officials said the explosion was still under investigation and that no charges had been filed against Wiedensohler.

Abedalsalam Alkhatatbeh, 24, who lived on the second floor, said he was in bed when the explosion occurred on the first level at 7:15 a.m.

"The bed threw me up, and I didn't know where I was at that time," he said.

The walls collapsed, Alkhatatbeh said, and he had to force the bedroom door open and jump over the sagging floor to escape.

"I went out through the fire. I had no choice," he said as he sat, huddled beneath a blanket in the Hawthorne Memorial Center, where the residents were taken to be cared for by the Red Cross.

The blast caused part of the rectangular wood-frame building to collapse immediately, but far greater damage occurred about five minutes later--after the occupants had fled--when a large part of the second floor fell into the first.

Firefighters extinguished the main blaze within 35 minutes, but they could not enter the unstable building and continued to shower it with water. Smoke was drifting from the apartments five hours after the blast.

City officials condemned the building and it is scheduled for demolition today. An adjacent 12-unit apartment building was declared uninhabitable until structural repairs are made.

"I think it's a miracle nobody got killed in that building, the way it looks," said Sheila Speck, who lives three blocks away and rushed to the explosion site. "I was in bed and I thought it was an earthquake."

Many tenants said they did not have insurance for their belongings, and some who are not U.S. citizens worried about the loss of passports, green cards and visas.

Red Cross officials said they will help the residents replace those documents and will provide shelter at motels for a few days for about a dozen families from the two buildings.

The incident was similar to one in Van Nuys last month, when a man apparently attempting suicide opened the gas jets to his stove then lit a cigarette, causing an explosion that destroyed a 10-unit apartment building. The man survived with first- and second-degree burns.

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