Two bodies at Ontario fireworks explosion tentatively identified, 100 homes still evacuated
An army of bomb squad technicians descended on an Ontario neighborhood Wednesday where 100 homes remain evacuated following a massive fireworks explosion that killed two people.
Cesar Paez-Vasquez, 20, and Alex Paez, 38, are believed to have died in the Tuesday explosion, according to preliminary identifications by the Ontario Police Department.
Both men, who have been missing since the explosion, are connected to the family that lived at the property, police officials said.
Ontario Fire Chief Ray Gayk said the evacuation orders may remain in place awhile as bomb technicians comb the property and ensure that it is safe.
The city’s bomb squad and SWAT team are being assisted by the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
“We have a tremendous amount of bomb technicians on scene,” Gayk said. “From what we have seen so far, it is consistent with commercial-type fireworks. ... We are trying to determine what kind of ordnance the bomb squad is dealing with.”
The two bodies are still at the scene, said Officer Bill Lee, a police department spokesman. “They have not been confirmed, because we haven’t been able to go in to confirm their identities, but [that’s] the preliminary identification,” Lee said.
The Red Cross housed 16 displaced families the night of the explosion.
Two horses were rescued Tuesday in the aftermath by the Inland Valley Humane Society, according to Lee. He added that dozens of pets were likely frightened by the explosions.
“It was like Fourth of July, but on steroids,” he said.
Gayk said fireworks are illegal in Ontario.
The cause of the explosion and the specific type of explosives involved are still being determined, he said.
Gayk said a horse was injured in the explosion. Video from KABC-TV Channel 7 showed a horse, smudged with black soot, trotting around the property after firefighters freed it from a building’s wreckage.
Residents across a vast area reported hearing the blast and feeling the ground shake shortly before 1 p.m. Tuesday. The Ontario Fire Department issued an evacuation order for neighboring properties on West Francis and West Maple streets, between Fern and San Antonio avenues.
The city tweeted that a large cache of fireworks ignited at the house, setting the residence on fire. Smoke could be seen from as far as Anaheim.
Two structures on the same lot — a front and back house — were engulfed in flames after the explosion, said Dan Bell, a spokesman for the city of Ontario.
“The roof is gone, burned out,” Bell said of the rear property. “The one on the front — I was on the street; I could see flames coming through the roof. It will most likely be a total loss.”
Investigators did not enter any of the structures Tuesday due to the danger posed by the remaining fireworks.
“We’re hoping we can get on scene and start this investigation process and get those neighbors home as quickly as possible,” Bell said.
At about 5:40 p.m., someone behind the caution tape yelled “Fire!” as more fireworks crackled from inside the blast area and flames flared. Firefighters began cascading water at the property. Neighbors were concerned there could be another explosion.
By 7 p.m., fire officials still did not think it safe enough to bring crews onto the smoldering property. With flareups occasionally sending flames into the air, units were pulled back into a defensive position around the perimeter.
“The reason for that is the debris field was larger than we originally anticipated,” Gayk said during an evening media briefing. “And out of an abundance of caution, we wanted to make sure that all of our personnel were safe.”
Authorities could take as long as four days to declare the area safe, Ontario Police Chief Michael Lorenz said.
Scores of residents in the immediate blast area were barred from returning to their homes. Bell said city officials would provide housing for those who needed it overnight. Evacuees were advised to seek help with housing at an evacuation post set up at De Anza Community and Teen Center at 1405 S. Fern Ave.
Jennifer Nalbandian, 43, said she was sitting on the couch in her living room when the initial explosion, which she said felt like an earthquake, shook her house.
“My daughter says to me, ‘No, Mom, I think it came from the sky,’ ” Nalbandian said. She began picking up things around her apartment that had fallen. Then she opened her front door.
“The boom pushed me back, and the window shattered,” she said. “I got hit with the after-blast when I opened the door.”
The structures that were destroyed in the blast were visible from her balcony, Nalbandian said.
“Fireworks always go off over here. It shook the whole apartment from left to right,” she said.
Oscar Vargas Ibarra, 17, who lives two houses from the site of the explosion, said he and his brother rushed for the door when the first blast hit. They grabbed their dog before bolting across the street. When the second, larger explosion hit, “that’s when everyone ran, ran for their lives,” Oscar said.
Some neighbors were aware of the fireworks in the neighborhood long before Tuesday’s explosion. Oscar said he knew that the people who lived at the now-smoldering home had “a few fireworks,” but he hadn’t been aware of the extent of their stockpile.
“They always pop them off, random sometimes, like at night shows or a holiday,” he said.
Flying debris shattered windows and toppled televisions in Oscar Martinez’s home a few houses from the site of the blast.
Martinez and six other members of his household were uninjured, but the 21-year-old was nevertheless shaken. He said fireworks go off in their neighborhood every few weeks, usually around midnight.
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