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Owner of metal works paint company was inside building at time of explosion, official says [Updated]

July 30, 2010 |  1:37 pm

The owner of a South Los Angeles metal works paint company was inside the building Friday morning when an explosion killed two people, a company official said.

Investigators determined that the explosion, at the building in the 900 block of East 59th Street, was caused by a gas line that had been illegally tampered with.
The building was occupied by JL Spray, a company that does paint coating of metal products owned by Jaime Lara, said Elizabeth Alvarado, manager of the firm.

The company’s gas had been turned off on Thursday, Alvarado said. Alvarado said she spoke to Gas Co. employees when they came to shut off the gas.

"They told me the bill wasn’t paid," she said.

When Alvarado arrived for work at 8 a.m. Friday, the building had been destroyed in the explosion.

She said Lara’s brother, Juan, had come to work with his brother early in the morning and stayed outside to do some cleaning while Jaime went inside to turn on the company’s paint oven. Juan saw the explosion, she said.

Alvarado said she did not know who else was inside the building at the time.

Authorities have not confirmed the identities of the two victims.

A Gas Co. official said a gas line that had been illegally tampered with allowed an unregulated, high-pressure flow of gas into the building. It was unclear Friday who had tampered with the line.

However, the incident is “not a homicide, it is a severe accident,” said Dennis Lord, spokesman for the Southern California Gas. Co.

One of the two victims was electrocuted when a live wire fell on his vehicle, said Capt. Steve Ruda of the Los Angeles Fire Department. The truck was parked next to the building's gas meter and contained tools and equipment that could be used to tamper with the meter, Ruda said.

The man could have been trying to leave the scene and did not see that an electrical wire had fallen onto his truck, Ruda said.

The two victims were found outside the building after the 6:50 a.m. explosion and taken to a hospital, where they were pronounced dead, Ruda said.

Firefighters were able to knock down the fire almost immediately and entered the building to search for a possible third victim. Search dogs did not find any other victims. 

Alvarado said she began working at the company a year ago when Jaime Lara first bought the building.

She said Lara, an immigrant from Guanajuato, Mexico, had moved his company from Lynwood to Los Angeles in early 2009.

Jaime Lara had worked in the trade for many years and knew it well, Alvarado said. Two others worked at the company along with Lara, including his brother, Juan.

The brothers arrived early Friday because the company had a lot of work, she said.

Jaime Lara "was a person who was trying to make his own American Dream and get ahead,” she said.

[Updated at 1:50 p.m.: On Friday afternoon, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Councilwoman Jan Perry visited the site and praised firefighters for their quick work. Perry, whose district includes the South Los Angeles neighborhood, said there have been three industrial accidents in the area in the last month.

"We are going to have to take a look at the business practices here," she said.]

-- Sam Allen and Sam Quinones