Pair Are Out of Their Element as Chemicals Stir Up a Big Reaction

Times Staff Writer

Van Fryman, a schoolteacher and self-described procrastinator, finally got around this weekend to cleaning out the fruit cellar at the old house in Orange where he’d lived for 17 years.

The result: Three houses and an apartment building were evacuated, firefighters and the bomb squad were called and the Red Cross set up an all-night emergency center.

The good news, however, is that there was no explosion, although firefighters said there could have easily been one.

It’s a complicated story, Fryman said Saturday morning after the all-clear had sounded and the neighbors had returned home.


He’d known there was a stack of boxes in the corner of the cellar belonging to his brother-in-law, he said.

The boxes had been there 17 years ago when Fryman, his wife and their four children moved into the house on East Palmyra Avenue. They’d been there perhaps a dozen years before that, for the house had been in his wife’s family since 1914, Fryman said.

But, Fryman conceded, he is an “out-of-sight, out-of-mind person,” and though he went into the cellar once or twice a year, he never generated the energy to clean the cellar.

Time passed, Fryman was divorced, he bought another house in Santa Ana and last month rented the house in Orange to Joseph M. Morones Jr. and his family. Morones soon served notice that he wanted the smelly boxes in the cellar removed.


Fryman and his roommate, Paul Lenaburg, drove to the house Friday afternoon expecting only an hour’s easy cleanup. But the more they dug into the boxes, the more worried they became.

Fryman said he “had no idea” the boxes held so many containers of laboratory chemicals. And Lenaburg, who had minored in chemistry in college, was beginning to recognize danger signals. “I told him, ‘Van, there’s some really heavy stuff here,’ ” Lenaburg said.

Fryman said the cellar had flooded years earlier, apparently washing away labels and opening up some containers.

“There’d be something yellow all dried up and then something blue all dried up, and Paul was saying, ‘Oh, my God!’ this and ‘Oh, my God!’ that, and I didn’t want to hear anymore. I said we’ll just take it to the Fire Department,” Fryman said.

30 Bags of Chemicals

By this time the men had carried 30 plastic supermarket shopping bags of chemicals in and out of their containers to Fryman’s van. At Lenaburg’s urging, the chemicals had been kept separate in the bags as a precaution against accidentally causing a dangerous mixture.

But, Lenaburg said, there was one container, a bottle marked “picric acid,” that seemed particularly ominous because it was resting in a box full of cushioning excelsior.

Chemical reference books say that if picric acid is diluted with at least 10% water, it can safely be transported. Otherwise it is a “severe explosion risk when shocked or heated.”


Lenaburg said he noticed that the acid in this bottle had, over years in storage, dried to crystals. But, he said, he did not know the significance of that. He said a firefighter later told him the bottle was “a time bomb. Unscrew the lid and the whole place would go up.”

The men drove to the Orange Fire Department’s headquarters nearby and asked a firefighter to come out, look at the chemicals and advise where to take them for disposal.

“He came out, looked at them, saw the picric acid and said, ‘You’re not going anywhere,’ ” Lenaburg said.

From then on, “this little chore we were going to do turned into a nightmare,” Fryman said. Firefighters, fearful of moving the van and setting off an explosion, ordered evacuation of about a dozen people from an apartment building near the fire station, closed off Grand Street and called in hazardous-materials teams from Anaheim and Los Angeles County. Eventually the Orange County Sheriff’s Department bomb squad was summoned as well.

Houses Evacuated

Other firefighters ordered Fryman’s house and the houses on either side evacuated while the remaining chemicals in the cellar were examined. A commercial cleanup crew removed the dangerous chemicals, but the areas remained closed from 7 p.m. Friday until 7 a.m. Saturday, firefighters said.

Morones said Saturday that life had returned to normal in the neighborhood. He said that he was inconvenienced but that “the guys I feel sorry for are Paul and Van. They weren’t fully aware of what was down there. They’re the ones who went through the havoc and may wind up paying for the cleaning costs.”

Fryman said that firefighters and others at the scene had been very sympathetic but that as the cleanup began one asked him, “Will you pay for this?” The man had estimated the cost to be between $5,000 and $10,000, Fryman said.


“I’m expecting a bill,” he said.