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As if Heat Wasn’t Enough, Barrio Gets Toxic Scare

Times Staff Writer

In the sweltering heat, the residents of Barrio Simons--a tucked-away pocket of homes in Montebello--were grateful for one thing on Monday.

There was no evacuation.

“I woke up at 1 o’clock this morning and I expected the police to come back and tell us to leave again,” 13-year-old Juan Jose Ramirez said as he sat under a shady tree to avoid the oppressive sun. “I kept waiting, but they didn’t come.”

“My stuff was packed,” said Jeff Pinsky, 39, who lives a block away from the Ramirez home. “But nothing . . . two days were enough.”

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Indeed, it was not much of a Labor Day weekend for residents of Maple Avenue, Date Street and Espanol Avenue on the southwestern edge of Montebello. On both Saturday and Sunday mornings, authorities ordered the evacuation of 50 modest homes because of a chemical cloud that came from a plant about a mile away.

Up to 27,000 people from Montebello and surrounding Eastside communities were ordered evacuated Saturday and another 1,000 again on Sunday because of the toxic gas that escaped from the plant, owned by Grow Group Inc. The toxic cloud contained a chlorine compound that the plant uses in producing chlorine tablets for swimming pools.

Quiet on Holiday

The plant, located in an industrial area north of the Santa Ana Freeway in Commerce, was quiet Monday and county Fire Department units kept a watchful eye from across the street.

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For the folks of Barrio Simons, the weekend commotion was a reminder of life next to an industrial area.

Large diesel delivery trucks, speeding police cars and fire engines and an occasional whiff of industrial fumes are commonplace on Date Street, but few could understand why the chemical release occurred.

“I’ve lived here for five years and you never really think about such things,” said Jose Luis Alvarado, 25, who was working on his truck in the midday heat on Maple Avenue. “Now, you have to think about the consequences. My wife’s pregnant with our third child and it makes you wonder about it.”

“We had little stuff happen,” longtime resident Stella Hernandez said, “but nothing like this.”

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Although some had questioned the necessity of the evacuations, area residents said they did not hesitate when the authorities ordered them out a second time on Sunday morning.

“The police came through and said, ‘Leave now, ' " said resident Larry Hernandez. “They rarely say anything like that . . . now!”

According to residents, Barrio Simons has always been a neighbor to industry.

The neighborhood is the area’s last link to the 1920s when families built homes to be near a brickyard that was operated by wealthy industrialist Walter Robey Simons, who owned eight brickyards in California.

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Simons Plant No. 3, as it was known, provided work for many immigrants who came up from rural areas of Mexico. In addition, many other families lived inside the plant’s gates.

After the brickyard closed in 1952, other companies moved into the area, changing its largely rural ambiance to one of a bustling industrial center east of downtown Los Angeles.

Montebello officials have considered condemning the homes to make way for new industrial projects. But most residents have resisted because they do not want to leave.

“A lot of these people, including my grandfather, have been here for a long time,” said Larry Hernandez, who along with other Espanol Avenue residents was ordered out of the area on Saturday and Sunday. “They’d like to stay here as long as they can.”

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As the heat wore on Monday, Barrio Simons residents tried to get to the chores that had been put off because of the evacuations.

Larry Hernandez’s family cleaned out a refrigerator. Across the street, Stella Hernandez (no relation) was thankful that her parakeets--left behind during the evacuation--seemed fine. Over on Maple, Juan Jose Ramirez played outside with his cousins from Chino.

But 17-year-old Pete Hernandez, no relation to the other two Hernandezes, couldn’t understand all the fuss over Sunday’s incident.

“Yeah, it was a hassle on Saturday,” he admitted. “But on Sunday? What evacuation? I slept through it . . . .”

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