Dec 9, 2014 3:08 AM

Investigators consider arson in LA apartment fire

The Associated Press

LOS ANGELES (AP) Federal and local investigators were trying to determine whether an arsonist set a fire that turned an unfinished downtown apartment tower into a block of flames so hot they melted freeway signs and cracked windows in office high-rises as far as a block away.

More than 250 firefighters battled flames that engulfed the wooden frame of the seven-story Da Vinci complex around 1:20 a.m. Monday. It took hours to douse the flames and left an unsafe, smoldering heap of wood and metal. Heavy equipment tore into the remaining scaffolding Monday night.

It was one of two destructive early morning fires in the city. The other heavily damaged a building that houses multiple businesses in a neighborhood a couple of miles away.

No one was injured in the first blaze and there was one minor injury in the second blaze, which appeared to be unrelated, authorities said.

The Da Vinci fire caused an estimated $10 million in losses to the complex, city fire Capt. Jaime Moore told the Los Angeles Times ( ).

Another $1.5 million in damage was done to a freeway where a sign melted and traffic-monitoring fiber-optic cables under the pavement may have to be replaced, authorities said.

Arson investigators were unable to immediately enter the unsafe structure, but fire officials said the fact that the fire erupted so quickly over so much of the building might point to arson.

"It's very rare for the entire building to be engulfed at once," Moore said. "There may have been foul play."

Investigators from the city Fire Department and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were looking into the cause of the Da Vinci blaze.

Investigators will look at surveillance recordings from surrounding buildings and will use dogs that can sniff fire accelerants.

The fire sent up sheets of flame that were visible for miles and rained ash onto freeways flanking the construction site. Some signs melted and portions of U.S. 101 and Interstate 110 were shut down for a time as burning debris fell into lanes. Commuter traffic slow-moving on good days remained jammed long after rush hour, with vehicles backed up for miles even after the freeways reopened.

Kin Isamov, 28, was heading downtown on the 110 freeway when he passed the blaze.

"You could feel the fire," he told the Times. "You drive through it, and you kind of imagine what Armageddon would feel like. You feel like any second the fire is going to get in the car, burn you."

Daniel Reese, 38, who lives in an apartment across the freeway from the Da Vinci, said he was awakened by sirens and then police ordered residents to evacuate.

He went to the balcony and watched the flames as embers rained down.

"I grabbed my wallet and my dog," he said, standing with his British bulldog, Marley.

Three floors of a nearby 16-story city-owned building had fire damage and the other floors sustained water damage. That building was closed for the day.

The intense heat also broke glass and melted blinds in three stories of the 15-story Los Angeles County Health Department building.

A block away, the city Department of Water and Power reported cracks in at least 160 of its 10-by-4-foot windows at its headquarters.

The blaze also set off sprinklers in a nearby building housing the city's Department of Aging, and the water ruined 2,000 Christmas gift bags containing items such as socks, sweaters and food that were going to be distributed this weekend to senior citizens, mainly the poor and those who live alone, department General Manager Laura Trejo told the Los Angeles Times ( ).

Trejo set up a fund through the Los Angeles Foundation on Aging to accept cash donations to replace the gifts.

The burned apartment complex was planned to be a 1.3-million-square-foot residential building one of a series of large complexes that have gone up around downtown in recent years.

The Da Vinci was to be an Italianate complex with hundreds of units and amenities such as a pool, full-sized basketball court, library, theater and business center.

The developer, Geoffrey Palmer, also built the Orsini and Medici complexes.

"We would like to thank the men and women of the Los Angeles Fire Department for their bravery, swift actions and effective response in putting out the fire," he said in a statement. "Though we have temporarily lost Building B, we will be opening Building A across the street at the end of January to those families looking forward to occupying their new homes."

Shortly after 4 a.m., another large fire was reported at a mixed-use building undergoing renovations about 2 miles to the west. More than 100 firefighters from multiple agencies responded and had the flames under control in less than two hours, according to Chief Deputy Mario D. Rueda.

One person in a nearby apartment building was treated for minor smoke inhalation, he said.


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