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The aftermath of a 1985 gas explosion at the Ross Dress For Less on Third Street. Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection

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A History of Unnatural Gas Leaks in Los Angeles

In Los Angeles Examiner, Hadley Meares looks back on the history that informs today's news

There was a massive gas leak, ticking like a time bomb, at Porter Ranch. Natural gas was pouring out of a damaged, Getty-owned oil well, and an oil fire burned for days on end before it was put out. County officials warned of a "giant field of fire" if the well was not properly capped. After two attempts, Houston’s Boots Hanson and his oil field firefighting "Hellfighters" successfully capped the leak. But the damage was done. "Just about everyone here on Killoch Way has a film of oil all over his house and yard," said one nearby resident. "And many have swimming pools polluted with oil as well as speckled automobiles." The year was 1968.

The Los Angeles area has had a long and complicated history with gas leaks, both massive and tiny. In this region, rich with natural gas and oil, gas seeping from the ground occasionally pointed prospectors toward great wealth. In 1907, a leak coming from an old water well in Southeast Los Angeles was investigated by geologists. This led to the discovery of the enormously rich Santa Fe Springs Oil Field.

Aerial photo of the blown out well in Porter Ranch, 2015. Earthworks

Striking a match to find a gas leak is an almost invariably successful method of investigation. A Pasadena man found a leak that way yesterday, and he is now said to be resting as quietly as could be expected of a man with no hair and not much skin left.

Public service announcements consistently urged housewives who were suspicious of gas leaks to use soap water to test for seepage. If the soap bubbled, one could use shellac or soap to cover the seam until a professional could fix the problem. However, this advice often fell on deaf ears, as illustrated in the case of Chippy, the singing canary who lived in Downtown LA with his mistress:

Months of chirping and warbling had strengthened Chippy’s tiny throat to such an extent that when a gas leak sprung in his mistress’s room yesterday afternoon, Chippy’s resultant insusceptibility to the fumes indirectly brought serious burns to Mrs. Florence Hill, a widow…and to Roy Jewell…plumber…Detecting a leak in the chandelier of her workroom, Mrs. Hill called Jewell. Being an experienced plumber and aware that canaries are used to determine the degree of gasses in mine rescue work, Jewell told the firemen he did not hesitate to strike a match as Chippy kept preening his plumage. A terrific explosion bowled Mrs. Hill and Jewell to the floor unconscious. Glass of the front windows was blown across Ninth Street…Chippy was dead.

The teeming city streets were also not immune to dangerous gas seepage. In 1924, nighttime revelers in Downtown LA were shaken by a most unusual explosion:

Gas escaping from a main and through a crevice in the sidewalk at Broadway and Fifth Street crept up into the base and filled the inside of the large street clock in front of Rittingstien’s jewelry store. The hands on the two luminous dials of the big timepiece pointed to midnight. The Saturday crowds had cleared the street and only one or two stragglers waiting for "owl" cars were seen standing on the corner. From across the street a dapper young man stepped up to the Broadway landmark and struck a match on the iron base of the clock. He lit a cigarette and, throwing the burning match to the curb, walked briskly up the street. A loud explosion brought a small crowd rushing to the scene apparently from nowhere. A few seconds passed before anyone knew what had happened. Both dials and the works of the big clock had been blown to bits, leaving only the hands in place.

The usual SoCal braggadocio was evident in his explanation for this overindulgence in energy: "A cheering thought in this connection is that in spite of all the enticements of the delicatessen and the can opener, the housewives of Southern California still do a commendable lot of real home cooking." (He tied this to the region’s abundance of year-round fresh produce.)

The other day, traffic at First and Broadway was almost blocked by the interest of a crowd in the mysterious actions of a group of workmen. They drilled a hole in the pavement, stuck a tube down into it, sniffed around a bit, marched on about 100 feet, drilled another hole, and continued that performance for about a block. Then the foreman marked a chalk ring on the pavement, as if about to start a game of marbles, and the workmen tore up the street right there. That is one of the free shows which continually arouse curiosity about town.

Sometimes, the search for a gas leak yielded unexpected finds. In 1932, the LA press breathlessly reported on a hotel manager up north in Merced who went into the hotel basement in search of escaping gas. "He didn’t light the traditional match," the LA Times wrote, "but his flashlight revealed three skeletons—and the discovery is causing far more excitement than if the gas-leak hunt had had the usual ending. It was reported that a rusty hunting knife, a hatchet, two chains, two flasks and a bottle of dark fluid were found next to the bones.

Gas seepage was also still considered a sign that oil riches were only a drill away. In 1937, Western star Richard Dix got caught up in this pipe dream:

Richard Dix thought untold wealth was to be found on his ranch in Hidden Valley. He discovered gas and summoned C.C. Kilroy, a geologist, to make a survey of the situation. Kilroy spent half a day tracing the source of the gas flow and then sorrowfully reported to the star that the gas was coming from a leak in the Los Angeles-Ventura pipeline.

In 1954, the old abandoned water well that had led to the discovery of the Santa Fe Springs Field sprung a new leak. Homeowner Joe Weigman, who happened to drive an oil rig, enthused, "Just think, I’ll be rich if they strike oil." Sadly, all the oil had already been pumped out of the area, and the well was filled with cement to prevent further leaks.

By the 1950s, Los Angeles County’s massive growth and increasing energy use started to cause environmental problems. Los Angeles became known for the oppressive smog that often hung over the city like a gray gauze. In 1957, passengers in Union Station mistook a gas leak for the city’s famous pollution problem:

Pungent gas fumes penetrated every nook and cranny, patio and platform of the Union Station through the early morning hours yesterday. Arriving tourists sniffed wryly as they left their trains, many remarking that now they knew what people meant about Los Angeles smog. "We had no idea it would be this bad," one woman declared as she dropped her luggage and wiped the tears from her eyes.

The 1960s and ‘70s saw a huge escalation in the number of large-scale gas leaks in Los Angeles that affected thousands of people. In 1967, an oil well blast at the Atlantic Richfield construction site in Downtown LA seriously injured eight workers and almost caused the under-construction tower to collapse.

In 1968, the aforementioned leak at Porter Ranch afflicted hundreds of homeowners in the newly built community of Granada Hills. In 1973, a pipe rupture in Carson allowed more than 100,000 gallons of gas to leak out, forming a huge cloud of sulfur trioxide, "which drifted over southern Los Angeles and western Orange counties." Thousands of people were evacuated from their homes and more than 38 went to the hospital with respiratory issues.

1980 saw a hydrogen sulfide cloud "billowing" over four Southern California cities, and a year later a "ball of fire" ripped through Cortex elementary school, injuring 12 people who were participating in a square dancing event. It was believed to have occurred when a flipped circuit switch ignited gas from the ground that was trapped in the walls. In 1987, a chlorine leak from a ruptured pipeline at a South Gate plant formed a "green cloud" that hovered over Tweedy Elementary School, sickening many students.

Montebello, built above hundreds of abandoned wells and a SoCal Gas Company storage facility, experienced decades of methane leaks.In 1985, a carbon monoxide leak from a faulty heater in Carondelet Hall poisoned dozens of students and several nuns at Mount Saint Mary’s College in West LA. After initial treatments, those affected suffered lingering symptoms including nausea, memory problems, and lightheadedness. "I took a chemistry test and could not multiply," one student recalled.

Eight days after the leak, 48 students and a few nuns were treated in a compression chamber the size of a railroad car for two hours, "to breath pure oxygen under barometric pressure twice that of sea level and to purge their bloodstreams and body tissue of the gas."

According to the Los Angeles Times, "the young women, wearing orange medical smocks and special plastic hoods, carried along their textbooks to study for next week’s final exam." All those affected made a complete recovery.

But the most infamous Los Angeles gas incident, before the 2015/2016 event at a SoCal Gas Company storage facility near Porter Ranch, took place on March 24, 1985. Busy Sunday shoppers were crowded into the Ross Dress for Less at Third Street and Fairfax Avenue. Most were probably unaware that they were standing above a portion of the Salt Lake Oil Fields, which had once been the site of 528 oil wells. Overnight, natural gas had been filling up an auxiliary room at the store, unbeknownst to anyone.

Crew drilling an air vent in front of Kmart in 1985.
An air-venting well being drilled adjacent to the Ross Dress For Less after the 1985 explosion.
Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection

At 4:47 p.m., the room ignited, setting off a devastating explosion. "It was like a cyclone," one survivor recalled. "Gusting air, screams, ashes and black objects flying around. It was horrible. Everything was on fire." As people fled the interior of the store, outside "flames licked through the sidewalk cracks, and walls were shorn apart."

The explosion was so powerful that windows were blown out blocks away. Fires burned for more than four hours after the blast. Miraculously, no one was killed, but 23 people were injured, several seriously. The reason for the blast has been long contested, but the city of Los Angeles, Park La Brea Associates, and MacFarland Energy Co. all settled with the survivors.

In 1989, another seepage was discovered on Third Street and 50 businesses were closed for two days. The Fairfax crisis resulted in several new regulations, including the requirement that buildings in at-risk areas have an underlying membrane, high quality venting systems, and methane gas detectors. It also halted the MTA’s plans to build a rail line along Fairfax Avenue.

Gas leaks continued to haunt Los Angeles throughout the ‘90s and 2000s. The recent crisis at Porter Ranch has been solved (for now) by an auxiliary relief well drilled by…Boots and Coots, cofounded by Boots Hanson of Houston, but now owned by Halliburton. The problems and their solutions might look roughly the same, but they keep getting bigger and bigger—just like Los Angeles.

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