Downtown La Mesa rocked by powerful pre-dawn explosions
Gingham restaurant was rocked by a series of violent fireball explosions that shook the surrounding downtown La Mesa neighborhood in the early hours of Sunday morning, Dec. 9. The establishment, located at 8384 La Mesa Blvd. was a scene of flames; fire trucks, police cars and evacuated neighbors huddled around in their pajamas and overcoats.
At 5:48 a.m. a loud explosion that shook my building, on nearby Cypress St awakened me. Thinking it was an earthquake, yet simultaneously feeling that it differed from the usual rocking and rolling that is a signature trait of earthquakes we’re prone to, I was alarmed and confused. I bolted up in bed and as I became more awake, a second, seemingly louder and more impactful explosion shook the building to the core. Then, against my better judgment, I ran to the window and saw a looming fireball coming from what I believed were a cluster of cottages on Allison Avenue, right next door.
Separating us was a mere parking lot. I could see the flames that appeared to have engulfed the rooftop of the cottage across from us. Amazingly, I could also feel a wave of heat emanating from the source of the impact. I slipped into my coat, gathered my purse and announced to my startled son that we needed to leave the building as a third explosion rocked it.
I saw my neighbor rush down the stairs in her coat. As we ran out of the building, I called 911 to get a directive on what might be happening around us. On the sidewalk on Cypress St., neighbors were gathering as the flashing lights of police cars and fire engines lit up the pre-dawn darkness. The ensuing chatter revealed that the incident might be happening at Gingham, the neighborhood restaurant of famed chef Brian Malarckey with its urban cowboy motif.
As things became more stable, I rounded the corner onto Allison Ave., where police officer Jeff Hughes confirmed that he had issued evacuation orders for residents in the area. Resident Bob James, whose business is located across from Gingham’s on Allison Ave., said that he was the first to call 911. “I woke up this morning at 5:00 a.m., when I initially heard a rooster crow right before I noticed the fire “, he said.
Doug Bania, a resident of Lemon Ave., directly located behind nearby Mario’s restaurant, concurred that he also heard a rooster crowing. He said that he also felt the force of the explosions on the hill where his home is located.
“Right before the first explosion, I saw flames in the enclosed back area of Gingham’s patio adjacent to McCrea’s Music Company. I walked over to see what was happening and realized that the fire was coming from a rack of propane tanks,” added James, who immediately called 911, and was told to evacuate from the scene. He noticed his car was parked directly across the street, but said that he had no time to get in and drive away as the first explosion ensued. He said that he managed to escape unscathed and, miraculously, his vehicle was not impacted. “There were a series of three explosions”, James said, which confirmed what I initially experienced.
Public Information Officer Sonny Saghera of Heartland Fire and Rescue, issued the following report on the scene once the fire was contained. He said, “At 5:48 a.m. Heartland Fire and Rescue was dispatched to 8384 La Mesa Blvd. where multiple explosions were heard. We discovered that five or six propane tanks exploded in the outside storage area of Gingham’s restaurant. Approximately 8-10 out of approximately 20 tanks had ruptured.
Gingham’s and adjacent McCrea’s Music Company sustained fire and water damage. Four engines were dispatched. No injuries or fatalities were incurred,” Saghera concluded.
Later that day, at around 1:00 p.m., I walked around the corner to survey the scene. I discovered in
Gingham’s enclosed patio area, there were stacks of singed and blackened propane tanks. A few of them looked like exploded bombshells. A door was boarded up after being blown up by the explosions and the walls were blackened.
Owner Gentry McCrea of McCrea’s Music Company, was gracious enough to offer me a tour of his landmark establishment. He showed me the water damage that was sustained. He explained that some of the instruments were also lost in the incident. He said that the firemen told him that they’d never dealt with a hotter fire. “However, we did manage to open as usual and hold classes with our students this morning”, McCrea, proudly added.
As Richard Felix, property manager of the establishments came on the scene, I greeted him and shook hands with McCrea thanking him for the tour.
I then told him that this venue holds a special place in my heart because my son took classes here when he was a child, and he responded that I looked familiar. To conclude, I was reminded of the one thing that resonated amongst the alarmed and startled neighbors earlier that morning, and that was a theme of collective community support, concern and genuine good wishes for the two local businesses affected by the incident Gingham’s and
McCrea’s Music Company, as well as for the residents of the surrounding La Mesa area, which once again proved to be a tight-knit community.