Gary Stephen Weksler has long been a man with a dangerous obsession.
Four years ago, it cost him most of his right hand, hurt 10 police officers and destroyed his apartment building.
On Saturday, it injured both of his hands and eyes, left his Los Angeles rooming house a shambles and chased 240 of his neighbors out of their homes for nearly eight hours.
“I sure wish he’d get a different hobby,” Los Angeles Police Detective Bob Nelson said. “He’s running out of fingers.”
For 25 years, Weksler’s passion has been fireworks--spectacular Roman candles, earsplitting M-80 firecrackers and homemade noisemakers that he uses to put on illicit shows for friends at Los Angeles-area parks and beaches.
Authorities said the 43-year-old self-described pyrotechnics expert was stirring chemicals for a new batch of firecrackers when the mixture exploded at 12:50 a.m. Saturday, blowing out the walls of his second-floor room on South Bronson Avenue.
Weksler was rushed to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center as police called a tactical alert and sent his Country Club Park-area neighbors to an evacuation center set up at Los Angeles High School.
He was reported in serious condition late Saturday. Hospital officials told police he lost an eye and fingers on both hands from the blast.
Weksler’s first serious brush with disaster came June 27, 1989. Police were called after Weksler drove himself to Queen of Angeles-Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center for treatment of an explosion-mangled right hand.
Officers investigating the incident were at Weksler’s apartment about three hours later when two more blasts erupted. The first explosion hurt 10 of them, including four from the bomb squad.
A larger second explosion 10 minutes later sent fireballs spewing into the air and blew out windows in neighboring buildings. It triggered a fire that gutted much of the Koreatown building.
Saturday’s explosion split open the second floor of the 82-year-old Bronson Avenue house where Weksler had apparently lived since 1989. Part of the downstairs ceiling collapsed.
Nelson, who investigated the 1989 incident and is also on the current case, said city building inspectors will determine Monday whether the $300,000, gray-tile house can be repaired.
Nine other tenants lived with Weksler in the rooming house. On Saturday, they were trying to contact their landlord, who they said is vacationing in Hawaii.
They described Weksler--who apparently works as a custodian--as a loner who came and went through a back door without talking to others.
“It’s lucky the explosion didn’t happen earlier when we were having Thanksgiving dinner,” said Reyna Soto, 29, who has lived in the building for two years. “The ceiling in the living room and dining room came down.”
Others said Saturday that exploding firecrackers were a familiar sound near the rooming house.
“I hear fireworks all the time. Once it set my car alarm off,” said Lula Watson, 76, who has lived in an apartment house next door for 16 years.
“If somebody whose hobby is fireworks wants to blow himself up, let him. But don’t do it where you’re going to hurt somebody else or destroy property.”
Saturday’s explosion sent glass, asbestos siding and window screens flying into Bronson Avenue. Neighbors awakened by the blast said they saw a large puff of smoke pour out of the rooming house but no fire.
“I thought it was an electrical explosion,” said Mario Diaz, 19, who lives across the street. “We were worried there might be another one.”
Police said Weksler will probably be charged with possession of an explosive. They said he recently completed parole after being convicted of possession of a dangerous device stemming from the 1989 explosion.
Injuries sustained by police in that incident included cuts, burns, concussions and hearing loss. Bomb squad member Bob Gollhofer was forced to retire because of his injuries, a police spokesman said.
Although Weksler’s neighbors also characterized him as an eccentric loner after the 1989 explosions, he bristled at that description.
In an interview with The Times a week after that incident, Weksler depicted himself as an average guy who was “into fireworks.” He said the first explosion had occurred when he poked at a skyrocket with a knife because he was “curious to see what they make it with.”
“I’m not some crazy bomber that makes bombs,” he said. “It’s a hobby of mine. I’ve been doing it for 20 years.”
His fireworks cache, he added, “wasn’t an overabundance,” just “enough to put on a small show . . . a little more than an average person would have.”
Despite his injuries, Weksler said at the time that he planned to continue to “fool around with fireworks.”
And he did.
“He just won’t stop,” Nelson said Saturday. “This guy continues to do this type of activity in areas that are heavily populated.
“I sure hope this is the last time.”