Instead of a grand opening Thursday, Jesse and Monica Oh had a rude awakening.
Only hours before they were to open the doors on their new fashion accessory business, fire swept through the aging apartment building above their storefront in old downtown Torrance.
The blaze Wednesday night sent scores of residents fleeing into the street and torrents of water cascading through cracks in the ceiling onto display cases filled with costume jewelry and imported boar bristle brushes.
"I just feel numb. I cannot believe it," Monica Oh said as she watched her husband mop up water still trickling down from the burned-out apartment above. "It's a bit depressing. Everything was cleaned up last night, ready to go."
$2,000 Ad for Opening
The Ohs had hung bright "Grand Opening" banners on the windows and paid $2,000 for a large advertisement that ran Thursday in the Daily Breeze announcing the opening of their first retail business. For two years, they have used the storefront as a warehouse to supply hair and makeup brushes to department stores.
But instead of cashing in on holiday sales, the Ohs, who said they don't have insurance, wound up with $15,000 to $20,000 in water damage to their merchandise three weeks before Christmas.
They weren't alone.
Other businesses on the ground floor of the three-story El Prado Apartments at 1221 El Prado Ave. also suffered losses.
The sign read "open," but a cash register store was closed. The laundry a few doors down was out of commission and nine employees are out of work until power is restored to the building.
The 70 residents were somewhat luckier. None of them were hurt, and their landlord, Pat Reddy, was there to return security deposits and hand out small additional payments to help with their expenses. Repairs were already being planned, and Reddy said he hoped to reopen the third floor within a few days.
Offer Shelter at Hotel
Residents spent Wednesday night in their cars or at the Torrance Recreation Center, and the Red Cross was offering to put families needing shelter at a motel. The Torrance fire came only two days after an explosion and fire routed a dozen families from two apartment buildings in Hawthorne.
Bill Hughes, who lived in the apartment next to where the fire began, said he kicked down a door and tried unsuccessfully to fight the fire but was forced to the floor by smoke. "I almost got trapped in there," he said. "I never realized how quickly smoke can overcome you.
"Everybody was yelling and screaming and pounding on doors. We're lucky it wasn't the middle of the night."
Apartment manager Lewis Edwards agreed. "We got everybody out in time, thank God," he said.
Torrance Fire Department Capt. Ken Hall said the blaze, which began at 9 p.m., was caused by a candle left unattended. The building was inspected two months ago by fire officials but "nothing out of the ordinary" was found, he said.