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Fire Destroys Oxnard Hangar, 12 Aircraft : Emergency: Pre-dawn blaze at 32,000-square-foot structure melts the building's contents into an unrecognizable mass of metal.


Fire swept through a hangar at the Oxnard Airport early Friday, melting a dozen planes and setting off a succession of fireballs that rocked the neighborhood and turned the pre-dawn sky bright red.

The 4:24 a.m. blaze, which gutted the 32,000-square-foot hangar at 1601 W. 5th St. in Oxnard, caused an estimated $3.5 million in damage.

"It's flat, completely gone," Oxnard fire spokesman Bill Scobey said of the metal hangar, which was crumpled and still smoldering hours after the fire was extinguished.

Although the cause of the fire was not immediately known, inspectors said Friday afternoon they suspect that a pile of oil-soaked rags may have spontaneously combusted.

But inspectors said that is only one of many possibilities and that it could take days or even weeks to determine the cause.

Planes, including two early-morning commercial flights, took off and landed Friday without interruption. But police closed 5th Street between Victoria Avenue and Ventura Road to traffic until shortly after 10 a.m.

The hangar is owned by Ventura County and leased to Venco Pacific Aviation, which rented space to private plane owners and ran a maintenance and aviation operation. A computer consultant and an accountant also had offices in the hangar.

Venco is owned by Jim Schoenneman of Agoura Hills, who could not be reached for comment Friday.

A security officer was the first to see the blaze, which began in the northeast corner of the old hangar, built in the early 1940s out of wood beams and sheet metal. The guard tried to put the flames out but decided to call firefighters when he heard explosions, said Michael Musca, the administrative officer for the county Department of Airports.

By the time firefighters arrived, Scobey said, the blaze was racing across the 200-foot-long building.

As firefighters battled the blaze, soot and charred metal rained on an apartment complex across the street from the airport.


Apartment residents, crowded in a nearby parking lot and cloaked in blankets to fend off the morning cold, said they feared that the wood-shingle roofs on their units would catch fire.

"I've never seen anything like it before," said Connie Williams, who said she and her children were awakened by a series of explosions. "All this stuff was flying through the air. The whole sky was filled with sparks."

As explosions ripped through the hangar, panicked residents went door-to-door waking their neighbors. Some fled their homes in nightgowns and pajamas.

Williams' 18-year-old son, Joe, said there were about a dozen explosions--caused by gas tanks and other fuel sources--in about a half-hour period.

"I saw big fireballs in the sky," he said. "The sky was totally red."

The fire was so intense that it melted everything inside the hangar, including the 12 planes, into an unrecognizable mass of metal. One of the planes, a Mitsubishi turboprop, was valued at $700,000, fire officials said.

To keep the fire from spreading, firefighters stationed themselves between the hangar and an office building to the east. In addition, firefighters guarded a smaller hangar to the west.

Flames came within a few feet of the smaller hangar, owned by Aero-Flite Inc.

"They did a great job of saving this one," said Dan Phillips, owner of the 55-year-old family aviation operation. "If this had gone, the whole row of hangars would have gone."


Scobey said 61 firefighters from the Oxnard and Ventura County fire departments took about 1 1/2 hours to put out the blaze.

West of the blackened hangar, the heat from the fire blistered the paint of two small airplanes parked nearby.

Even after the flames were extinguished, hot spots continued to rekindle.

About 10 a.m., the rubble cooled enough so inspectors could make their first walk through what was left of the building. But they warned that determining a cause will be difficult because of the intensity of the blaze and the destruction it left in its wake.

Ventura County's arson task force was called to help out in the investigation.

"We've eliminated nothing, and we suspect everything," Oxnard fire inspector Richard Rodriguez said. "But it's going to be a monumental task. There's so much damage and it was such a big fire, there are just a lot of things to look at."

Airport Administrator Rod Murphy said Friday's blaze was the first major fire at Oxnard Airport. He noted that the county is just starting to put together a master plan to guide future uses for the airport.

He said the county is insured for the $1.5-million loss of the hangar.

"The business operators and those who stored their planes in the hangar are the ones who really suffer most," Murphy said.


Ventura resident Don McGunigale is among them.

For the past three years, he has run his computer consultant business out of the hangar. He lost computers and other items with an estimated value of about $10,000.

"It looked like a bomb went off in there," McGunigale said. "You can't even tell there used to be airplanes in there. The totality of it being gone is just overwhelming."

As firefighters began picking through the rubble late Friday morning, Ojai resident Ray Mason looked on in disbelief. Inside, somewhere in the charred beams and twisted sheet metal, was his 1959 Beechcraft Bonanza.

"It's totally gone, it's melted," he said, surveying the damage.

Mason has been renting space in the hangar for four years. He said he had upgraded his plane over the years, pouring more than $75,000 into the flying machine. He even kept a scrapbook tracking its progress.

"A lot of people have had losses, and I'm sure they all feel like I do," said Mason, a pilot of 42 years. "I don't know if I even want to start over."

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