Two deaths blamed on explosion in South L.A.

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Wave Wire Services

LOS ANGELES — Calls for Police Chief Michel Moore to be fired were renewed Aug. 3 following families’ allegations that two elderly South Los Angeles residents died due to stress and other problems associated with a destructive fireworks blast set off by an LAPD bomb squad.

The families of Auzie Houchins, 72, and Ramon Reyes believe that the blast contributed to their deaths. The men were evacuated from their homes without their oxygen tanks, according to South Central Neighborhood Council Vice President Ron Gochez, who said that both men already suffered from illnesses.

When Houchins was taken to the motel, where the families were relocated to, the family says the food that they were provided by the city was really unhealthy and they had a lot of really sugary snacks,” Gochez told City News Service. “So, he was a diabetic and that really didn’t help at all and his blood pressure went through the roof.”

Moore didn’t mention the deaths in his weekly report to the Police Commission Aug. 3, but he addressed the issue after Commissioner Maria Lou Calanche asked for an update on the investigation into the explosion and the city’s work to provide aid to the neighborhood’s residents.

Moore said the department was aware of the public’s concerns and the department is “looking at the underlying health conditions of the individuals involved.”

He added that the department doesn’t believe the deaths were a result of the explosion.

One caller to the commission meeting was incensed at Moore’s handling of the issue.

“The fact that he didn’t even mention it underscores why Chief Moore needs to be fired and we need to defund the police,” the caller said. “That is a classic example of not accepting responsibility. Not even mentioning it is offensive.”

City Councilman Curren Price released a statement about the deaths Aug. 2, saying his office “received word of the recent loss of two patriarchs that lived on 27th Street” but he did not comment on the cause of death.

Houchins’ wife Lorna Hairston told ABC7 that Houchins was a teacher and lived in South Los Angeles for his entire life.

He doesn’t take any kind of change and being usurped like that from the home for three weeks, just sitting there in the room with nothing to do — pretty bad,” she said.

The Los Angeles County coroner’s office listed Houchins’ death on July 22 as sudden cardiac dysfunction and arteriosclerotic cardiovascular disease. Reyes’ death was not listed. Gochez said he was inside the home during the blast and the roof collapsed onto him.

The detonation on East 27th Street, near San Pedro Street, sent 17 residents and first responders to hospitals, destroyed a bomb squad truck and damaged 22 residences, 13 businesses and 37 other vehicles.

A preliminary investigation into the blast by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives’ National Response Team found that the LAPD bomb squad significantly underestimated, based on a visual assessment, the weight of explosive material being loaded into the truck for detonation.

The truck — which had been used 41 previous times over the last decade, including for three detonations in June — can safely contain the detonation of up to 15 pounds of explosive materials for repeated use or up to 25 pounds for one-time use that would render the truck out-of-service in the future.

Bomb technicians followed department protocols to limit handling of the explosive devices and estimated the total amount of explosive material being loaded into the truck at 16 1/2 pounds, Moore said on July 19. The National Response Team’s physical weighing of the materials found that the actual amount was 42 pounds.

How could the LAPD Bomb Squad make such a stupid mistake? How could they have allowed this to happen in my working class community?” Price asked.

Moore said he would wait for all the information from the ATF’s investigation before disciplining personnel, adding that if individuals followed department protocol, they wouldn’t be held responsible.

All businesses around San Pedro Street have been able to reopen, along with full resumption of traffic on 27th Street. Displaced families were initially housed in local motels, but the city has now rented 29 “corporate housing” units, which Moore said were fit for long-term residency and include kitchens.

The ATF’s report will be sent to the National Center for Explosive Training and Research for review, and the LAPD expects to have it in the next few weeks.

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