Report: Some in LAPD bomb squad questioned amount of fireworks before detonation blast

An ATF investigation and the LAPD's after-action report revealed calculation errors


By Josh Cain
Daily News, Los Angeles

LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Police Department bomb squad erred when estimating by sight the amount of explosives contained in a cache of homemade fireworks that they then placed inside a containment vessel to detonate, resulting in a massive blast that leveled parts of a South L.A. neighborhood in June, federal investigators said in a report released Tuesday.

Some of the bomb squad members also appeared to not know what the actual rated explosive capacity was for the vessel they had been using since 2008, according to a summary of interviews they did with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearm and Explosives.

In this June 30, 2021 file photo ATF investigators stand next to the remains of an armored Los Angeles Police Department tractor-trailer after illegal fireworks seized at a home exploded in the containment chamber, in South Los Angeles.
In this June 30, 2021 file photo ATF investigators stand next to the remains of an armored Los Angeles Police Department tractor-trailer after illegal fireworks seized at a home exploded in the containment chamber, in South Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu, File)

"(The bomb squad member) stated there was a drop dead 40 pound weight for one shot that (the total containment vessel) can take and then that's it," wrote an ATF investigator.

The TCV actually has a capacity of just 33 pounds of TNT, the ATF said. Due to their inaccurate estimate, the bomb squad thought they were putting slightly more than 10 pounds of explosives inside the vessel.

That investigator was speaking to the squad member who picked up one of several dozen soda-can shaped devices, in addition to hundreds of other small explosives, found at a home on East 27th Street. He estimated its weight in his hand, then cut into the device to observe the powder inside.

The squad member "stated no one weighed the material and no scale was used," the ATF investigator wrote.

The explosion ripped through the vessel, launching large chunks of metal hundreds of feet away. Dozens of buildings were damaged, leaving numerous residents homeless months later. At least 17 people, including police officers at the scene, were injured.

Neighbors say two men who lived on the street for decades and were displaced died in the weeks after the explosion. A group of residents have a lawsuit pending against the city.

[RELATED: Rapid response: LA fireworks explosion is a sober reminder of the associated risks]

LAPD has refused to acknowledge the men's deaths. Their after-action report of the incident lists the injuries that resulted from the blast: under deaths, the department lists "none."

LAPD Chief Michel Moore presented both the ATF's findings and the after-action report to the Los Angeles Police Commission on Tuesday. The LAPD report detailed other bomb squad failings that day.

The most serious of those failures was the faulty calculations. It's still not completely clear why the bomb squad's estimates were off by a factor of three.

Besides just looking at the small explosives and using their experience to estimate their power, the bomb squad also had "x-rayed and disassembled" two of the devices to determine what was inside. And yet they still miscalculated.

LAPD said around 32,000 pounds of commercial grade fireworks were found at 716 East 27th Street, the home of 26-year-old Arturo Ceja III. He has since pleaded guilty to obtaining those fireworks from a seller in Nevada and transporting them across state lines.

The only fireworks detonated from that stash were about 280 small devices and around 40 or so of the soda-can shaped explosives. Still, with that number of devices being placed inside the TCV, Moore has said that meant the bomb squad's small error was compounded as they continued to pack the vessel.

In one interview, a squad member at the site questioned the amount of explosives being carted away to be detonated.

The team members debated whether the total, or gross, weight of the explosives indicated anything about what's called their "net explosive weight" — essentially, the amount of power of their explosive material.

One squad member "looked at the large box of material to be disposed and agreed that it looked like a lot of stuff," the ATF investigator wrote.

The squad member who did the explosive weight calculations said the amount could be safely detonated, "because even though the gross amount of the product looked big, the (net explosive weight) was not big," according to the report.

The squad member with concerns "took their word regarding the (net explosive weight) calculations."

The reports went into other issues related to bomb squad policies and procedures.

For years, Moore said, the department has not had a blast site anywhere in city limits where they could take explosives they confiscated. Because of that, Moore said they found the bomb squad had come to rely on the TCV as the only way to detonate explosives.

He also said LAPD policy was that transporting explosives was too risky. Safer, they thought, was to blow up explosives on site: Before June 30, LAPD detonated explosives in neighborhoods about 40 times in the 13 years since getting the TCV, Moore said previously.

After the blast, LAPD called other police agencies to figure out how they handle using their TCVs.

"None of the agencies that we've spoken with have used the TCV on a recurring basis for destruction on site," Moore said.

LAPD will no longer use any TCV on site. Transporting explosives first to an area far away from neighborhoods will be LAPD's policy going forward, Moore said.

That could include transporting explosives hundreds of miles away. To do that, LAPD could use either an older TCV. One is currently sitting on a trailer and being tested to see if the device can be recommissioned, the chief said.

Another option would be to get a dump truck packed with sand and place explosives inside to transport them that way, Moore told the commissioners.

LAPD's after-action report listed numerous changes being made to training and policies after the explosion. But it's still not clear how the department's vaunted bomb squad, which Moore repeatedly has described among the best in the world, ended up using routine practices that were faulty or outright incorrect.

A complaint investigation is still ongoing for the squad members involved in the blast. After that, discipline, including potential firings, would be up to the chief.

Moore said Tuesday afternoon that the squad members were removed from the field after the blast.

"They have not returned and it's not my intention to have them returned to their previous duties," he said.

Councilman Curren Price, Jr. represents the neighborhood that was damaged. Using funds earmarked for his office, he has housed a large number of residents displaced by the blast.

In a statement Tuesday, he called the explosion "a colossal failure" by LAPD.

"The negligence at the hands of LAPD showed zero regard for our community," Price said. "As trained professionals...I still cannot fathom how the LAPD thought it was acceptable to merely eyeball unstable explosives in the middle of a densely populated neighborhood."

(c)2021 the Daily News (Los Angeles)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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