A major explosion in South Los Angeles on Wednesday evening damaged buildings and injured at least 17 people, including police officers, as a bomb squad attempted to safely detonate improvised explosive devices that had been seized from a home along with thousands of pounds of illegal fireworks.
The blast damaged cars in a residential neighborhood and left debris on the streets, video on social media showed. A truck that was being used to collect the fireworks was also severely damaged, video showed.
At a news conference, Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore said officials responding to a home on the 700 block of East 27th Street had found several thousand pounds of illegal fireworks as well as improvised explosive devices that were “more unstable.”
An LAPD bomb squad transferred the improvised devices into the iron chamber of a “total containment vehicle” that’s meant to contain such explosive material, he said.
Police detonated the devices at 7:37 p.m., believing that the vehicle would be able to contain the explosion, but there was a “total catastrophic failure of that containment vehicle,” Moore said.
“Clearly protocols were followed and pursued, but something happened in that containment vehicle that should have not happened and we don’t know why,” the chief said. “We intend to find out why.”
Officials said that nine LAPD officers and an officer from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were treated for minor injuries and are in fair condition. Six civilians were also taken to a hospital, three with serious injuries and three with minor injuries. One civilian was assessed for injuries but not transported.
Moore said that none of the injuries was life-threatening.
Moore said that on Wednesday morning the LAPD received a call about the fireworks at a home in the neighborhood.
At the residence’s patio, officers found several thousand pounds of fireworks stacked in boxes, and bomb personnel spent the day moving them to be stored at another location.
Officers also found improvised explosive devices with simple fuses — some of them the size of Coke cans — and conducted X-rays to determine their contents.
Less than 10 pounds of the devices were transferred into a containment vehicle, which Moore said should have been able to contain the explosives. Officials established a 300-foot perimeter behind the vehicle and evacuated the north and south sides of 27th Street.
But the explosion that followed caused damage to homes, consisting mostly of broken glass, and injured law enforcement officers and civilians.
Paul Sanchez, a KTLA photojournalist, said he was filming the containment unit from about 50 feet away when it exploded.
“It didn’t knock me to the ground, but it was almost like someone had thrown a football-style block,” he said.
His ears immediately started ringing, but Sanchez’s adrenaline kicked in and he kept working — shooting the aftermath of the explosion.
About 30 minutes later, though, his hearing “wasn’t coming back, which sent me into a panic.”
“My reporter was talking to me and it just sounded like he was one of the parents from the ‘Peanuts’ cartoons, combined with a ringing in my ears,” he said.
Sanchez went to the hospital, where he was placed in a quiet room, he said. After about an hour, his hearing began to return and a headache he’d developed went away.
Maria Velasquez, 39, said that she was having dinner with her family when police knocked on the door of their home and asked them to evacuate. They didn’t say why.
Velasquez and her family went to attend a funeral viewing. While they were there, Velasquez began receiving messages from neighbors asking whether she was OK. One neighbor said there had been a car bomb near her house.
The streets were blocked off when Velasquez returned home, and she and her father, Hilario, waited outside a laundromat. They said they had heard that at least four neighbors from the same household had been injured in the blast — two suffering cuts from broken glass.
The gate to their house appeared to have been blown off. The windows of Hilario’s truck were shattered.
Velasquez said she was mostly worried about her dog, Camela, who was still at home.
“I never liked fireworks,” she said. “If something has happened to my dog, more so now.”
Officers arrested Arturo Cejas III, a man in his 20s who resided at the home with the fireworks, on suspicion of reckless or malicious possession of a destructive device. He is being held on $500,000 bail.
Moore said that the explosives were acquired from out of state and transferred to California for the purpose of being sold to community members for the Fourth of July. He said that officials found Cejas’ 10-year-old brother at the scene and will be pursuing child endangerment charges as well for the risk he faced from the explosives that had been stored at the home.
The LAPD will work with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to investigate who supplied Cejas with the fireworks and the improvised devices, as well as to review the action taken by officers to see “what we can do to avoid this type of circumstance from ever happening again,” Moore said.
L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti wrote on Twitter that he was monitoring the situation closely and had directed the LAPD to conduct a full investigation “so we can better understand why this happened.”
“Illegal fireworks pose a great danger and can cost lives,” he said. “We will prosecute those who use or possess them to the fullest extent of the law.”
In the run-up to the Fourth of July, city officials have repeatedly warned the public about the dangers of illegal fireworks.
Last week, City Atty. Mike Feuer said his office had sent cease-and-desist letters to online platforms, including Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, 5Miles and OfferUp, which agreed to remove posts advertising fireworks for sale in L.A.
On Tuesday, the L.A. City Council approved a motion by Councilmember Mark Ridley-Thomas to direct city agencies to report back on setting up a system to track and respond to fireworks complaints through a mobile application.
Such a system was established by San Bernardino County after an Ontario home packed with illegal fireworks exploded in March, killing two people. During the cleanup, authorities loaded dozens of large bins with unexploded fireworks.