One year ago Thursday, a South Los Angeles neighborhood was shaken when a Los Angeles Police Department bomb squad attempted to detonate a large cache of illegal fireworks.
The resulting explosion was felt for blocks. Seventeen people were injured, including some of those officers, and the truck used to contain the fireworks was destroyed, sending debris flying.
Three-hundred sixty-five days later, some of those homes have been repaired. But many residents of that neighborhood are still picking up the pieces blown apart by thousands of pounds of commercial-grade explosives.
Photos: Powerful Blast During Illegal Fireworks Bust Rattles South LA Neighborhood
Just before 7 p.m. on Wednesday, June 30, 2021, an LAPD bomb squad was in a neighborhood in the 700 block of East 27th Street, near San Pedro Street.
They’d been called there because of the large quantity of illegal explosives held in a home there — roughly 5,000 pounds of commercial-grade fireworks.
The man accused of planning to resell the fireworks ahead of the upcoming Fourth of July weekend, 26-year-old Arturo Ceja III, was already in custody, and the bomb squad was trying to safely dispose of the large quantity of explosives.
Officials all around Southern California had been warning the public for weeks about the consequences of illegal fireworks. Aside from the steep fines, they said, there are also wildfire concerns during the drought and the potential for injuries.
“Leave the fireworks to the professionals,” the Riverside Fire Department Chief said in their statement that year. “Let them do their job.”
The bomb squad’s plan was to place the explosives in an armored truck, then blow them up safely.
Officers went door to door in the immediate area, knocking to tell people to leave their homes before the detonation. Some people didn’t answer.
The bomb squad proceeded with their plan.
When the explosives that the LAPD confiscated were all inside the truck, they counted down to the detonation.
Aerial video shows the damage from the South LA fireworks explosion. Video broadcast on Today in LA Thursday July 1, 2021.
‘Lucky to Be Alive’
The blast from the truck was felt for blocks.
One car right next to the armored LAPD vehicle ended up on its side. Glass in the windows of nearby homes and cars shattered, sending shards into living rooms and bedrooms. Some of the homes sustained significant damage.
When the lid from the armored truck — a 2,000-pound hunk of metal — flew into one family’s yard, it damaged their lemon tree and a wall of their house.
“We just felt everything shake,” Endy Garcia said shortly after the incident. “Really, really bad and a big loud noise, like a bang!”
Nobody in Garcia’s home was hurt, but he said they were lucky to be alive.
“It felt like a, pretty much a giant bomb, just going off at one time,” Thomas Mendez, another nearby resident, told NBC4. “You could feel like, the wave go off, the explosion, the pressure.”
“It felt like… If you had been closer, you would have been injured,” he said.
And at least 17 people were injured — 10 law enforcement officers, and seven residents. Some of those residents are believed to be those who didn’t answer the door when the LAPD knocked.
Reports from mid-July 2021 stated that 22 residences, 13 businesses and 37 vehicles were damaged.
As of June 29, the office of LA City Councilman Curren Price says their efforts have helped 70 individuals affected by the blast, out of 88 people initially housed at The Level Hotel.
A year later, 66 individuals affected by the explosion are still in hotel rooms, the councilman’s office said.
Price’s office also stated that 12 addresses that previously housed 18 families remain at The Level Hotel, occupying a total of 21 rooms. That’s down from 29 rooms initially occupied in that hotel alone, the councilman’s office said, according to the notes they keep.
The blast injured 17 people and disrupted a community. Gordon Tokumatsu reports for the NBC4 News on Friday, July 2, 2021.
Many of the homes in the immediate blast radius, like that of Endy Garcia, were yellow-tagged while the 15-person team from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives investigated the incident.
One family of five — with another child on the way — had to sleep in their car the first night after the explosion, before the City of LA stepped in to pay for meals and the hotel tab.
“It’s hard,” said Kenia Prieto. “We’re basically homeless right now.”
Two senior citizens, displaced from homes damaged during the South LA fireworks explosion at the end of June, have died. Their families are blaming the stress from the explosion and the aftermath. Ted Chen reports for NBC4 on Aug. 2, 2021.
At least one family affected by the blast hired a lawyer and filed a claim against the city that same July.
“Our life changed,” Jose Bacerra said during a press conference about the claim.
“The police go in the morning, and they say ‘We found fireworks in the neighbor’s house so you have two options – leave the house or stay inside the house and you’ll be safe,'” Bacerra recalled.
As other families continued to feel the effects of the explosion months later, still living in hotels and waiting on repairs, some community members protested what they said was a slow response from City Council and a lack of accountability from the LAPD.
Community members are unhappy with the how the LAPD handled fireworks that exploded in their neighborhood. Ted Chen reports for the NBC4 News on Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021.
What Went Wrong?
There was a high amount of explosive material to begin with. The initial investigation by local authorities estimated that 5,000 pounds of fireworks were found.
However, later reports showed the ATF subsequently determined that Ceja, the man who initially had the explosives, was actually storing 32,000 pounds of fireworks in his backyard “in an unsafe manner, namely under unsecured tents and next to cooking grills.”
In the weeks immediately after the explosion, LAPD Chief Chief Michel Moore said human error on the part of the bomb squad likely contributed to the devastation.
The preliminary reports from the ATF agreed, and found that the bomb squad significantly underestimated, based on a visual assessment, the weight of explosive material that was being loaded into the bomb squad truck for detonation.
Bomb technicians followed department protocols to limit handling of the explosive devices and estimated the total amount of explosive material being loaded into the truck was 16.5 pounds, Moore said.
The National Response Team’s physical weighing of the materials found that the actual amount was 42 pounds.
“We have miscalculations that are significant,” said Moore, who publicly apologized to residents for the damaging blast.
The blast injured 17 people and displaced a community. Ted Chen reports for the NBC4 News on Monday, July 19, 2021.
The full federal report found that the team, which largely estimated how much explosive material there was present rather than using a scale, also ignored the warnings of an expert team member who said the cache should be broken into smaller portions.
The inspector general’s report also faulted the LAPD for a “lack of supervision,” and said “a failure to utilize best practices at the scene of Bomb Squad calls had become somewhat of an accepted practice.”
Where Are They Now?
Arturo Ceja III, the man arrested, pleaded guilty in August 2021 in Los Angeles federal court to a federal charge of transporting explosives without a license, according to the case docket.
In September 2021, LAPD Chief Moore declined to release the names of the officers involved in the detonation.
The LAPD changed department policy following the explosion, with Moore saying he directed the LAPD to no longer use a total containment vessel to detonate fireworks in residential locations.
City Council also voted to have the Los Angeles Police Department replenish $1M from Councilman Price’s office’s Environmental Equity and Justice Fund, which had been used to help the victims.
As of June 29, Price says their efforts have helped 70 individuals affected by the blast.
But 66 individuals affected by the explosion are still in hotel rooms, a full year later, the councilman’s office said.
Those 66 people are from 12 addresses in that South LA neighborhood, which previously housed 18 different families. They currently occupy a total of 21 rooms, Price’s office said.
A total of 408 claims have been filed against the city, according to Price’s office. Of those, 87 were settled, while 280 need more information or a response from the claimant or their attorney to move forward.
One has moved forward into a full-blown lawsuit.
Jose Bacerra, one of the earliest explosion victims to file a claim against the city, was still in a hotel in mid-April.
“Our life is still a mess,” he said.
Victims of the botched fireworks explosion in South LA are just trying to get back to normal. Many of them were injured and some are still displaced. John Cadiz Klemack reported for the NBC4 News at 4 on Tuesday, April 19, 2022.
A total of $281,316.13 has been paid out to victims so far, Price’s office said.
City Council has also provided $10,000 each in financial assistance for the 26 most severely affected homes.
That’s in addition to “a $1 Million Relief Fund for cleanup services and to help expedite payments,” Price’s office said, and “$5 million to pay for longer-term corporate housing, home repairs, the establishment of the Trinity Neighborhood Center, community beautification, including sidewalk repairs, and much more.”
Nearly one year after LAPD’s botched fireworks explosion in South L.A., the city is taking new steps to help families still not able to return to their homes. John Cadiz Klemack reports on the NBC4 News at 4pm on Wednesday, June 22, 2022.
But it’s been a long road for the families still waiting to go home.
“It’s almost one year this happened,” Becerra said in April. “I know the city is trying to do the best but still, we just want to go back home and have our claims with the city resolved as soon as possible.”
NBC4’s John Cadiz Klemack contributed to this report.