By Sue Favor
SOUTH LOS ANGELES — Residents affected by a massive explosion in their neighborhood June 30 took turns expressing grief and anger in an emotional forum July 12 in which they demanded help from the city and answers from the Los Angeles Police Department.
“I truly want to see justice,” said Martha Sanchez, secretary of the South Central Neighborhood Council, which facilitated the event. “I truly want to see people get what they need.”
Sanchez was one of many residents who spoke at the meeting that was attended by City Councilman Curren Price. Speakers outlined their needs and called for accountability from police for the botched planned detonation of illegal fireworks that resulted in a huge explosion that shatter windows of homes and businesses and destroyed vehicles. Seven residents, nine police officers and one Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms official were taken to the hospital with injuries.
“If the same thing happened in other communities, [the perpetrators] would be persecuted as criminals,” Sanchez said.
The blast occurred just east of the corner of 27th and San Pedro streets in the early evening of June 30, after police had spent the day pulling about 5,000 pounds of illegal fireworks from a home in the neighborhood, which borders a nearby elementary school.
The police loaded some of the haul into a metal container on the back of a trailer rig parked in the middle of the street, which exploded. The detonation tore the container and vehicle apart and sent shrapnel flying through the air as far as a block away.
The three houses nearest the blast were the most severely affected, but gas and electricity were lost at several homes. Police evacuated the entire block, and have stationed officers at the entries to streets and adjacent alleyways as a protective measure.
Residents have been put up in nearby hotels, and some have lost money from work. Many who attended this week’s meeting said they are experiencing post-traumatic stress syndrome from the incident, and are asking the city to provide mental health services.
“Some feel so scared, still, to walk around the neighborhood and see the disaster provoked by [those] who truly don’t care,” Sanchez said.
The meeting was contentious at times, with residents chanting demands, denouncing police, and booing LAPD speakers. At one point, a small group of people who were pro police assembled behind the speaker panel and held up signs. They were asked to sit down.
Residents are upset with not only what they say is lack of assistance in the crisis, but what they term blatant disregard by LAPD for their neighborhood.
Price said his office was not informed that there was a planned detonation on the evening in question. He said he felt the blast from his home, 10 blocks away, and then made his way to the scene.
“I’m outraged that something like this could have occurred in our community,” Price said. “I’m repulsed by what happened. I want answers, and I want them now.”
LAPD and ATF officials are conducting an investigation, but Price said residents don’t have time to wait for its completion.
“The truth is, you don’t have the luxury of waiting for an investigation,” he said. “People are hurting. They need help now. Your world has been turned upside down, your lives have been put on hold. Everyone responsible must be held accountable for their actions.”
The American Red Cross and other disaster relief organizations are stationed at nearby Trinity Recreation Center daily to provide services. Price said his office has provided hotel vouchers, gift cards, food, clothing and refrigerators to those affected. City officials present provided information on how to file a claim with the city. But Price said it isn’t enough.
“At this moment, we’d like to pick up the pieces and do what is needed to survive as a result of a stupid decision that gave little regard to the lives and property of this working-class neighborhood,” Price said. “It would have never happened in a more affluent area. People are feeling hopeless, lost. Medical bills, lost commerce. … I have introduced a motion in council to make sure people are properly compensated.”
Representatives from LAPD were met with jeers and heckling when they addressed the crowd. David Kowalski, commander of the Counter-Terrorism and Special Operations Bureau, was booed when he mentioned that half of the people injured in the blast were police officers. When he declined to name whoever made the decision to detonate the explosives, audience members began chanting “We want names!”
Clean up along 27th Street has been largely completed, thanks to the work of Compton Veterans and Team Rubicon last week. The organizations were brought in by the city to clear debris from inside affected homes. Compton Veterans President Miguel Vazquez said he and his staff took a cooperative approach with residents.
“There was a great deal of trust, and much of this trust would not have been possible if it were not for the Spanish speakers within our teams,” Vazquez said. “In many cases, we were the first people actually on deck, within their homes, clearing out debris and actually talking to them as they guided us.
“Being able to make this type of connection is a sensitive one and our teams were reinforced by mental health providers brought in by (the Emergency Network LA) for any residents in need.”
AmeriCorps and the Carpenter’s Union were on the block this week to help with repairs. But the entirety of structural property damage won’t be known for some time.
Price reassured residents that filing a claim wouldn’t preclude them from suing the city later, and that undocumented residents can also file claims.
“We’re going to do everything we can to make sure families are whole again,” Price said. “We want to make sure there is a thorough investigation, and that we hold people responsible for their actions. We are here to serve.”
Those needing assistance can call the Local Assistance Center at (213) 486-8137, or Price’s office at (323) 846-2651.
Sue Favor is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers, who covers South Los Angeles. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.