‘Total catastrophic failure’: LAPD faces questions over fireworks explosion that hurt 17

Aerial view of the remains of a destroyed armored truck, damaged vehicles and other debris scattered by explosion
The remains of an armored Los Angeles Police Department vehicle after homemade fireworks exploded inside it Wednesday evening.

The Los Angeles Police Department is promising a full investigation amid growing questions about the agency’s handling of a fireworks seizure in South Los Angeles that ended with a huge explosion that injured 17 people.

The blast occurred Wednesday inside a special LAPD semi-truck that had been used to contain and safely detonate fireworks and other explosives.

The truck was parked in front of a house in a residential neighborhood where the fireworks were found. Both law enforcement officials and residents were in the area at the time. Cars and some homes were damaged by the blast.

Explosion damages homes and injures 17 people as a bomb squad tries to safely detonate homemade fireworks seized from a home.


Here is what we know:

What brought police to 27th Street?

On Wednesday morning, the LAPD received a call about fireworks being stored at a home in the 700 block of East 27th Street, Chief Michel Moore said.

On the patio of the residence, officers found several thousand pounds of commercial fireworks stacked eight to 10 feet high in boxes. Bomb squad personnel spent the day moving them to be stored at another location

Explosion damages homes and injures 17 people as a bomb squad tries to safely detonate homemade fireworks seized from a home.

Officers also found what Moore called “improvised explosive devices” with simple fuses — about 40 the size of soft drink cans and 200 smaller objects of similar construction — and conducted X-rays to determine their contents.

Armored LAPD vehicle blown apart by the explosion
The armored LAPD vehicle blown apart when seized fireworks inside exploded.
(OnScene TV)

How the blast occurred

An LAPD bomb squad transferred a portion of the improvised devices into the iron chamber of the truck, which with its outer containment shell, was built to withstand an explosive force greater than from the amount that was placed inside, Moore said.

Police detonated some of the devices at 7:37 p.m., believing that the vehicle would be able to contain the explosion, but there was a “total catastrophic failure of that containment vehicle,” Moore said.

“Clearly protocols were followed and pursued, but something happened in that containment vehicle that should have not happened and we don’t know why,” the chief said. “We intend to find out why.”

An ambulance parked in a street with lights flashing at night
An ambulance parked in the street after Wednesday’s explosion that injured 17 people.
(Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times)

What precautions were taken?

Authorities established a 300-foot perimeter behind the vehicle and evacuated the north and south sides of 27th Street. Some witnesses said they saw people being directed away from the truck minutes before the blast.

But it’s unclear how extensive the evacuation was. Six civilians were taken to a hospital, three with serious injuries and three with minor injuries. One civilian was assessed for injuries but not transported. It’s unclear where they were when the explosion occurred.

Authorities were in the process of seizing more than 5,000 pounds of illegal fireworks at the time of the explosion in South Los Angeles.

Moore acknowledged that, after the explosion, residents had come out of residences where officers thought no one was home, after no one answered during a door-knocking effort to clear the street.

The injured identified by officials ranged in age from 42 to 85. Authorities said that nine LAPD officers and an officer from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were treated for minor injuries and are in fair condition.

Paul Sanchez, a KTLA-TV photojournalist, told The Times he was filming the containment unit from about 50 feet away when it exploded.

“It didn’t knock me to the ground, but it was almost like someone had thrown a football-style block,” he said.

 LAPD truck blown apart in an explosion
Police Chief Michel Moore promised a comprehensive review of the incident, in which an LAPD truck was blown apart in an explosion.
(Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times)

Where did the fireworks come from?

Officers arrested Arturo Cejas III, a man in his 20s who resided at the home where the fireworks were found, on suspicion of reckless or malicious possession of a destructive device. He is being held in lieu of $500,000 bail.

Moore said that the explosive material was acquired from out of state to be sold to community members for the Fourth of July. He said officials found Cejas’ 10-year-old brother at the scene and will be pursuing child endangerment charges against Cejas as well.

The LAPD will work with the ATF to investigate the origin of the fireworks and improvised devices, as well as to review the actions taken by officers to see “what we can do to avoid this type of circumstance from ever happening again,” Moore said.

What are the ongoing questions?

Investigators want to determine why the explosion occurred — including whether there was human error gauging the potential power of the explosives or failing to follow protocols to ensure containment or mechanical error with the truck.

There are also questions about why the explosives were not moved to a more remote location before being detonated, and whether more people should have been evacuated from the area before the detonation.

Moore promised a comprehensive review of the incident that would take into account the age of the containment vehicle and its history, as well as the power of the improvised explosives.

L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti wrote on Twitter that he was monitoring the situation closely and had directed the LAPD to conduct a full investigation “so we can better understand why this happened.”

The ATF said its national response team “is arriving today to assist in processing the scene” of the explosion.