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Gas Smell Was Detected at Bungalow Before Fire

Injury: Show-business retirement home workers could not find odor's source, spokesman says. Woman was badly burned.

February 28, 2001|JASON SONG and RICHARD FAUSSET | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A maintenance log shows that gas odors were reported two weeks ago near the bungalow that caught fire this week at the Motion Picture and Television Fund's retirement home, gravely injuring an 87-year-old resident, a state official said Tuesday.

Josephine Codd, who remained in critical condition Tuesday with burns over 60% of her body, had also complained of the odor for months, relatives and friends said.

David Tillman, president and chief executive of the Motion Picture and Television Fund, which operates the Woodland Hills retirement home and hospital, said the facility had investigated the reports but could not find the source of the problem.

"We'd been aware there were concerns," he said. But maintenance workers employed by the retirement home could not find the source of any gas leak, he said.

While the cause of Monday's fire was under investigation, Tillman confirmed that the bungalow was heated by a wall gas heater, which fire officials are looking at as a possible cause of the blaze.

"I want to emphasize how horrible we all feel that someone was hurt at a place where there is an opportunity for an improved quality of life," he said.

Tillman added that retirement home officials are meeting with representatives from the Southern California Gas Co. to review the facility's gas line infrastructure and inspection procedures.

The maintenance log shows that the smell of gas was reported near Codd's home in Bungalow 19 on Feb. 14, according to Blanca Barna of the state Department of Social Services, which regulates retirement homes and reviewed the logs after Monday's fire.

Barna said agency officials are seeking to determine if the retirement home workers were qualified to investigate the gas problem.

The log also shows that on Feb. 19, there was a reported problem with a wall heater in the bungalow, which has four residential units, Barna said.

The nature of the problem and whether it was resolved were not immediately clear, she added.

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Fire officials are still trying to determine the cause of the fire, but investigators are focusing on a wall heater as the source, said spokesman Jim Wells of the Los Angeles Fire Department.

Located on 40 acres in Woodland Hills, the complex includes a hospital and residential units for sick and retired TV and movie industry veterans.

Codd was a nurse for 20th Century Fox and is the widow of the late Fox treasurer Jack B. Codd, said Codd's step-grandson, Bruce Gregg. Gregg said Codd began alerting home officials to a gas smell in her room in September, and complained about it to them as recently as Thursday.

He said Codd suspected the gas was coming from outside the room.

"I remember her commenting that there were flowers dying on the outside of the house," he said.

Gregg said he noticed a trench had been dug outside Codd's bungalow during a visit to the hospital about a year ago. Fund President Tillman said work had been done near the bungalow but was unsure about the purpose of the job.

Ione Haugh, 81, of Canoga Park had been picking up Codd for services at St. James Presbyterian Church in Tarzana for about a year. Haugh said she had noticed the smell a number of times, but said it had grown fainter in recent weeks.

On her last visit, Haugh said, she had not detected any odor, and Codd told her that home officials had taken care of the problem.

"She seemed to be pretty well satisfied with what they were doing," Haugh said.

Codd is being treated at the Grossman Burn Center at the Sherman Oaks Hospital and Health Center. Doctors hope she will stabilize in the next several days so they can perform surgery on her burns, a spokesman said.

The Los Angeles Fire Department is reviewing the reports that Codd had complained about the gas odor before the fire, said Battalion Chief Daryl Arbuthnott.

"At this point, we don't know if she made the complaints," Arbuthnott said. "Our arson investigators are looking into every aspect of the fire."

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The retirement cottages and the hospital are outgrowths of the Motion Picture Relief Fund, founded in 1921 by industry pioneers including Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks.

The first major development on the land was the Country House, a complex of 62 cottages, which was dedicated in 1942.

Six years later, the group dedicated the Motion Picture Hospital, now a 256-bed acute-care facility.

In 1967, the relief fund became the Motion Picture & Television Fund, which still oversees operation of the Woodland Hills facility, in addition to the fund's four other outpatient and health centers.

An expansion project to house an additional 92 residents is scheduled to open this year.

Over the years, the complex has been home to or offered care to such popular performers as DeForest Kelley of "Star Trek" fame, Norman Fell, a longtime character actor who played landlord Stanley Roper on the "Three's Company" sitcom, and legendary producer-director Stanley Kramer. Kramer, 87, died Feb. 19 at the facility.

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Times staff writers Karen Robinson-Jacobs and Michael Krikorian contributed to this story.

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