When a stockpile of illegal fireworks was destroyed in a South LA neighborhood, it was meant to be a contained detonation. But after the blast, triggered by the LAPD bomb squad, windows were shattered for blocks, cars were overturned, 17 people were injured, and numerous residents were displaced. Now allowed back in the neighborhood to assess the damage to their homes, questions are being raised about why authorities allowed the detonation in the middle of a residential street in the first place.
The South Central Neighborhood Council this week approved a motion that would begin a process to ban the kind of detonation that shook the community.
The secretary of the council, Martha Sanchez, lives just a few blocks from where the explosion occurred.
“The day of the incident was just a regular Wednesday for me,” says Sanchez. The marriage and family therapist was leading an online session with around 30 people when the blast rattled her home.
“I heard a very strong noise,” Sanchez recalls. “I looked at my window next to me, and it was shaking so badly, I tried to hold it from my left side because it was coming toward me, and I started screaming. I said, ‘Oh my God, it’s an earthquake!’”
When the online session concluded, Sanchez’s daughter told her it wasn’t an earthquake that jolted the house, but the illegal fireworks that were blown up. She soon witnessed just how damaging the explosion was.
“I saw my best friend being rushed to the hospital,” Sanchez says. “I started screaming even more and crying because I saw her face full of blood. And I saw her husband and her aunt. I saw several familiar faces, and I was just in shock.”
Sanchez is concerned the explosion could have caused irreparable damage to many houses that are more than a century old.
“I’m afraid that the building and safety will condemn those properties because we are living in a very old neighborhood,” she says.
Real estate speculators are already trying to buy damaged properties
If the explosion and the subsequent threat of the wrecking ball weren’t challenging enough, Sanchez says the blast has put the neighborhood squarely in the sights of real estate speculators.
“There [are] tons of speculators coming already, trying to buy our properties,” she says. “We receive at least three or four calls every day asking us to sell our properties. If they condemn those properties, they’re going to displace more poor people that have no idea how to pay their rent. That’s unbelievable.”
Sanchez also fears the speculators will come in and put up new buildings that don’t reflect the character of the historic homes in the neighborhood.
“This shouldn’t have happened”
Regarding the investigation into what went wrong with the supposedly controlled detonation, Sanchez says details are sparse.
“The few things that I have heard from officials is that this shouldn’t have happened,” she says. “Someone gave the order — unauthorized order — and they thought that the truck [would] resist the impact. The protocol was not to do it in front of houses.”
As the South Central Neighborhood Council works to connect families impacted by the blast to community groups and city leaders to receive assistance, it also is demanding accountability. The council this week passed a resolution holding the LAPD responsible for the explosion.
“We’re hoping to get criminal charges against whoever did the order for negligence and for putting in danger the community,” says Sanchez. “We’re hoping also to get justice and a measure that would prevent, in the future, for any entity, regardless of who it might be, to make decisions without consulting the right person, the right community.”
While authorities are prepared to respond to natural disasters like fires and floods, Sanchez says this explosion caught them off guard.
“There’s no preparation,” she says. “It is a disaster. It’s not a massive disaster. Thank God it wasn’t like that. But still, it destroyed the peace.”
LA City Councilmember Curren Price, whose district includes the explosion site, introduced a motion that calls on the LAPD to “expedite a report on the failed operation, including what caused the explosion, and how to better protect the public and ensure a similar event never happens in the City of Los Angeles in the future.”
Price’s office told KCRW: “Our office has been in touch with all families affected and has even assisted about 10 households with hotels and groceries.”
His office says the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) conducted an independent investigation into the incident. That agency has concluded the on-the-ground portion of the inquiry and will now process evidence. Once that’s finished, the ATF will release a report with its findings as to why the LAPD Bomb Squad truck exploded.
“While we wait for a final report that will give us a better understanding of what happened, I want to encourage all individuals directly impacted to file claims at the Local Assistance Center set up at Trinity Recreation Center,” says Price.