Gas meters in the path of an out-of-control car amplified the consequences of it smashing into the rear of a Santa Monica cafe Wednesday morning. Severed lines released fuel that ignited and burned more than two hours before crews were able to shut off the line.
"Something happened, it spinned out of control, I tried to hit the brakes and it just hit the wall and went straight into the wall," said the driver, Yelena Zabokritsky. "I just feel bad about this."
The driver and the employee inside the Cafe de Paris were able to escape serious injury.
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It may have been a case of the driver hitting the accelerator instead of the brake pedal. For now it is seen as an accident pending further investigation, said Santa Monica Police.
Philippe Blanchet, the cafe owner, was just pulling into the parking lot when he saw the car crash into the back wall, he said. He said he could smell gas as he went inside and found his employee sitting down, somewhat dazed. The two got outside before the fire erupted, Blanchet said. The woman was in the back of the cafe near the wall at the time of the impact, and was hit by some debris, but not seriously injured, according to Blanchet and a fire department official.
Firefighters responded to an initial 911 call of a car driving into a building in the 700 block of Montana Avenue. Moments later it became a fire as well, as leaking natural gas ignited. Early on a series of small explosions could be heard, said Luis Rodriguez, a tailor at the dry cleaners across Montana Avenue, seeing smoke rise when he looked outside.
The impact had severed the shut off valve for the gas line, said Mike McElvaney, a Battalion Chief with the Santa Monica Fire Department. The Toyota Camry came to a halt atop the mangled and broken lines, with the car taking the brunt of the blaze.
Firefighters limited the spread of the fire into the building, but the heat caused significant damage, according to Blanchet. Fearing risk of explosion, McElvaney said the decision was made to let the fire continue to burn off the escaping gas until the line was shut off, so that the gas would not accumulate into an explosive concentration.
Zabokritsky said she was pulling out of the parking lot after getting a morning coffee at the Starbucks in the commerical building. She recalled striking a curb before her car surged forward out of control.
Officials from the Southern California Gas Company arrived on scene to evaluate the leak caused by a "small" service line that was sheared during the crash, said spokesman Javier Mendoza. The responding crew had to remove parking lot asphalt and dig down some three feet to find a section of the line where it could be shut off.
"Well we were unable to completely extinguish the building fire till the gas was shut off cause it was still constantly creating heat," said Battalion Chief McElvaney.
Blanchet said he learned from city building officials that the damage was so severe was so severe the cafe may not be able to reopen for three or four months. The adjacent Spumoni restaurant was also damaged and yellow-tagged to limit access.
The block of Montana Avenue between Lincoln Avenue and 7th Street remained closed to all traffic until mid afternoon. Gas Company crews worked to restore gas service to the building housing the cafe. Without it, other shops in the building also remained closed, and it was not certain when they would be able to reopen.