A fire and a series of explosions ripped through a paint manufacturing facility in Carson on Monday, critically injuring three people and forcing the evacuation of surrounding businesses.
The fire erupted at Advanced Packaging and Products in the 16000 block of Maple Avenue shortly after noon, triggering blasts that shot flames, along with canisters and other debris, up to 70 feet in the air. A towering column of black smoke was visible for miles.
"You could actually see fireballs going up in the air through the smoke," said Brian White, vice president of an equipment rental company two blocks away.
The three male burn victims, who were not immediately identified, were taken to hospital burn units, officials said.
Dozens of firefighters responded to the blaze, and about 100 employees from neighboring businesses in the industrial district were evacuated as a precaution.
"You could see propane tanks flying up in the air," said Zack Hild, 45, who works at a Sparkletts plant across the street. "It was gnarly."
Other witnesses described the explosion of several 55-gallon drums, filled with unknown chemicals, and how the thick black smoke was punctuated by white, aerosol-like wisps that appeared to burst into flames.
"The real fear was when the flames started getting big, and you could feel the heat on your face," said Marcos Rodriguez, 27, shortly after being evacuated from a nearby tire factory. "We were worried the flames could reach the factory.... So you can imagine the kind of fire."
Jose Luis Ortiz, 25, who works at the same tire plant, said he quickly hitched a ride to safer ground.
"I hopped real fast on a company truck that was passing by," Ortiz said. "It was scary because the flames were very tall."
The cause of the fire is under investigation.
It took about 75 Los Angeles County and city firefighters about an hour to extinguish the blaze.
The South Coast Air Quality Management District said the company manufactures paint.
The agency received one complaint of smoke from Avalon Gardens Elementary School on San Pedro Street in Los Angeles. An inspector was sent to investigate, but the fire department did not request air monitoring so no testing was done, an AQMD official said.
Records did not indicate any violations by the company in the past year.
But the plant has been cited for serious violations in the past, according to the state Division of Occupational Safety and Health.
In February 1999, the agency issued 11 citations -- six for serious violations -- against the company, after inspecting the plant in response to a complaint. Among the violations were "improper storage of flammable and combustible liquids" and "lack of training for employees on handling of hazardous substances," agency spokesman Dean Fryer said.
Times staff writers Marla Cone and Teresa Watanabe contributed to this report.