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Fireworks Plant Explosion Blamed on Man’s Suicide

Times Staff Writer

A massive explosion at a fireworks plant, apparently detonated by a distraught husband committing suicide, hurled chunks of concrete the size of television sets over more than a square mile before dawn Friday.

Two other people were injured--neither seriously--when the blast leveled the Celebrity Fireworks Co. plant in the barren, largely undeveloped scrubland on the northwestern edge of this San Bernardino County town.

Widespread damage was reported, with windows shattered as far as four miles away, when “several hundred” pounds of black powder, along with “a large quantity” of aerial shells used in professional fireworks displays, exploded at about 1:55 a.m., according to Rialto Fire Department sources.

The blast, seen and heard as far as 20 miles away, occurred in one of about 20 World War II munitions bunkers now used as storage and assembly facilities by at least three fireworks manufacturers.

Capt. Randy Ammons, a public information officer for the fire department, said the Rialto Police Department had received a phone call a few minutes before the blast from the wife of Eric Garcia, 24, an employee at the plant.

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“She reported that they were having marital problems,” Ammons said. “She said she feared for his mental condition, for his safety.”

Ammons said police headed for the fireworks plant, but did not get there in time.

Mark Uhler, 36, a boilermaker living less than a quarter of a mile away in one of the homes closest to the bunkers, said his daughters, Kimberly, 2, and Angela, 5, were asleep in their rooms and he and his wife, Nancy, 30, were getting into bed when he heard “a thump, like the sound of a car door closing. . . .

“I looked out and saw a glow, then a flash,” said Uhler, a veteran of Vietnam.

“The whole sky lit up, and you could see the stuff flying through the air,” Nancy Uhler said. “My husband yelled for me to hit the floor, and we did. The next second, all the windows blew in.”

‘Like a Shotgun Blast’

In the seconds that followed, an immense, mushroom-shaped fireball boiled 1,500 feet into the air, followed by a virtual avalanche of debris that rained down on the modest, single-story home “like the incoming rounds when I was in ‘Nam,” Uhler said. “It smelled like sulfur, like death. . . .

“One big chunk of concrete came down through the roof, hit a crossbeam and shattered like a shotgun blast, right behind the baby’s bed,” he said. “I yelled for her, and she didn’t answer.

“The power was out, and there was dust and dirt everywhere, and for a minute I couldn’t see a thing. But when I finally found her she was OK, and that made it all right.”

At a residential property--now vacant--on one side of the Uhlers’ home, there was massive damage from falling debris, including shattered windows, twisted doors, buckled ceilings and walls and one neat, circular hole in a barn roof.

Lying on the ground beneath the hole was a charred bowling ball that apparently had traveled a quarter of a mile from the bunker. Why the ball might have been at the bunker in the first place was not immediately known.

In the house on the other side, which sustained similar damage, Uhler’s niece, Tonia Uhler, 19, was bruised and cut when the frame of a window facing the blast blew in and struck her legs.

Worker Injured

The other moderate injuries were suffered by a male employee--not immediately identified--at the Trojan fireworks plant a few hundred yards from the center of the blast. A fellow worker said the injured man was cut and bruised by flying debris, which buckled walls, shattered windows and severely damaged vehicles at the Trojan plant.

Capt. Ammons said Friday morning that, officially, Garcia was being reported as “missing,” and “although the theory is that it was a suicide, we have nothing to prove that, yet.”

However, a few hours later, Ammons said investigators had found “some things” in the debris near the shattered bunker that might turn out to be fragments of human tissue. But he said that guard dogs--and numerous wild animals such as rabbits and coyotes--roam the area, and “we’re not sure what we have. The coroner’s office will have to determine that.”

Jean Starr, area manager of Pyro Spectaculars, the firm that owns Celebrity Fireworks, said Garcia had been employed as a production worker at the plant for about a year, and Ammons said Garcia had keys to all the bunkers at the 160-acre complex.

‘Always Seemed Happy’

Starr described him as “a nice young guy who had a lot going for him. . . . He always seemed happy, smiling.”

Starr said that at least two other companies share use of the bunkers--Trojan fireworks and Red Devil fireworks. Officials said the bunkers consist of Quonset huts about 50 to 100 feet long. Each is covered with about a foot of reinforced concrete and then buried under an additional five feet or so of dirt, gravel and rocks. Each bunker has a single padlocked steel door.

The bunker in which the blast took place was leveled by the explosion. Nearby structures--fire officials said they are not sure, but there probably were half a dozen or more--were burned or ripped to shreds. Several vehicles in the area were reduced to heaps of twisted wreckage. Fences were flattened, power and phone lines downed.

“When they called me and said Celebrity Fireworks had been wiped out, I thought, ‘How could that be?’ ” Starr said. “But when I got here, it was.”

In July, an accidental explosion at the Trojan facility in the bunker complex killed a Trojan employee, Jose Diaz, 33, of San Bernardino. Damage in that blast was comparatively minor.

Asked if the explosions at the two facilities in less than two months were prompting him to move to safer ground, Mark Uhler said no: He and his family will stay.

“That leaves only one more plant,” he said.

“After it goes up, that’ll be it.”


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