Los Angeles Fire Department Captain Burned in Explosion Sues Businesses, Building Owner

By Micaela Ricaforte
Micaela Ricaforte
Micaela Ricaforte
September 17, 2021 Updated: September 19, 2021

A Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD) captain is suing a downtown vape shop and its building owner for negligence and hazardous activity after he was severely burned in an explosion last year.

Firefighters were responding to a fire that broke out in the warehouse in May 2020, when the building exploded in a 30-foot-wide ball of fire, injuring 12 firefighters along with LAFD Captain Victor Aguirre, a 20-year veteran of the department.

Aguirre sustained burns all over his body, and third-degree burns on his hands, some of which were so severe that each of his fingers was partially amputated; he was hospitalized for two months and has undergone 25 surgeries since. The 12 other firefighters sustained “minor to critical burns,” and one firefighter suffered a lower extremity injury, according to a report by the LAFD.

“As a Union leader whose top concern is the health and safety of our members, this is personal to me,” Freddy Escobar, president of United Firefighters of Los Angeles City, said in a statement. “Our firefighters are lucky to have escaped this inferno with their lives. We support the City Attorney’s efforts to hold people accountable for their reckless actions that put our first responders in harm’s way.”

Aguirre is suing building owner Steve Sungho Lee, along with owners of the businesses inside the building, including Smoke Tokes, a vape shop. The lawsuit alleges that the building illegally stored large amounts of hazardous materials. Lee owns several buildings on Boyd St., which is also known as “Bong Row” due to the high number of businesses selling goods associated with smoking vapes, tobacco, and marijuana.

The lawsuit comes after the LAFD report found that the blast was caused by an excess of nitrous oxide and butane in the Smoke Tokes vape shop.

However, despite the large quantities of butane, the LAFD had no record of ever inspecting the building.  The LAFD’s report said that “the subject address was not found in the LAFD Fire Prevention database and records of inspection were never completed.”

Fire Chief Ralph M. Terrazas told the LA Times that a fire inspector would have annually inspected Smoke Tokes due to the large amount of nitrous oxide and butane in the building, and that the materials would likely have been seized upon inspection.

“From what I saw shortly after the incident … they were obviously overstocked, and we would have cleared inventory, directed them to reduce inventory, cleared aisles, cleared product away from the doors … basically make it safe for our firefighters in the event there was an emergency,” Terrazas said.

Business operators and building owners on Bong Row are facing more than 300 criminal charges from the city for violations at various building locations as a result of multiple inspections by the LAFD, LAFD’s Arson Unit, Los Angeles Police Department, and the Department of Building and Safety.

Charges include violations of the Los Angeles Municipal Code and the California Penal Code, such as failure to comply with LAFD fire and building code orders, according to a statement by the L.A. city attorney.

Lee faces charges on 36 counts for violations at 327 Boyd St., 50 counts for violations at the building he owned next door, 46 counts for violations at 309 S. San Pedro St., and three counts for violations at 5719 S. Avalon Blvd. Lee could face up to 68 years in jail and face thousands of dollars in fines.

Neither Aguirre nor Lee could be reached for comment. The LAFD  declined The Epoch Times’ request for comment “as the matter is in litigation.”