This L.A. Resident Wants Answers for LAPD’s Fireworks Fiasco

After the explosion in south Los Angeles on June 30.
Photo: Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times via Getty Imag

On the evening of June 30, the Los Angeles Police Department detonated confiscated fireworks from a vehicle designed to contain the blast. it went very badly. The explosion overturned cars, smashed windows and blew up walls, as well as the one-ton roof of the LAPD’s $ 1 million “total containment vessel” landed in a backyard two blocks away. At least 17 people were injured, some of them hospitalized, and two dozen households have been displaced. At a press conference four days later, families said they had slept in damaged cars and homes – still in shock and with little help offered from the city.

This week a group of families filed a complaint against the City of LA, and a forum allowed affected families to speak directly to LAPD officials and City Council member Curren Price. But there are still many unanswered questions, including who will be held responsible for effectively bombing a residential area and paying for repairs. Martha Sánchez, a family therapist and member of the South Central Neighborhood Council who lives three blocks from the site of the blast, saw her windows damaged and her best friend was hospitalized. Sánchez – who has coordinated many relief efforts – explains what happened that day and details how difficult it is to get members of his community to get the help they need.

You’ve probably told the story so many times now, but can you describe what you were doing when the explosion happened?

I’m a marriage and family therapist doing telehealth, and I was sitting here having a group session with over 30 families. These are people who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. I heard this huge explosion, and I was trying to understand it. I noticed my window was coming towards me. I raised my hand to try to hold it. I was leading the meeting in Spanish and started shouting in Spanish: Oh my God, an earthquake! “Oh my god, there is an earthquake.” And then I think I am in the middle of a session, what do I do? and try to calm down. My clients have asked me, are you okay? And I said, “Yeah, don’t worry, I’m fine.”

Afterwards, I called my daughter. She looked at Citizen and told me it was a blast. I live on 30th Street; the incident happened on the 27th. I went on social media because I have a lot of friends who live in that specific area, and then I saw my friend recording what was going on. And then she mentions someone exiting in a wheelchair who is rushed to the hospital – and I saw my best friend, all covered in black, and her face was red with blood. And then I saw her husband, then her aunt being taken to the emergency room. I had the impulse to go for a run and be there. But the police immediately closed the area.

Do we still know what really happened?

I know the protocol is to take anything away [explosive] residential areas and take him to the mountains. They have a specific place to do these things. Why did they decide to do it here? I heard someone say he was tired. [On the day of the explosion] the whistleblower call was made very early in the morning at 8 a.m. and I started to hear police activity around 1 p.m.

You knew something was going on, even before the explosion.

What really struck me was that the media were already there. They were filming. At the laundromat, there were many people standing, watching and [the LAPD] don’t even call them to leave, two blocks away. Some sort of immature decision.

This does not match what the LAPD said. They said they went door to door and tried to evacuate the area.

They only told the people in the block, on 27th Street, next to the truck. They said to them, ‘We’re going to have a little explosion here, it’s going to be just like a little noise. Don’t open the door. Just close the door and stay inside. Nothing is going to happen. Stay inside? When are you going to have an explosion?

It’s the families where you seen the whole front of their house open up, setting there.

[They’d been] sitting there watching what the police were doing from the window. Do you think this glass will protect you? They were thrown as far as from the living room to the kitchen. My God.

I remember looking at these photos of the residents of the community. And there’s one that shows the firefighter walking into their homes to see who was there. My friend, sitting on the floor. She was in shock. And she was just shedding blood. And she was looking nowhere, like completely lost. Crystals everywhere. Nobody says words, just silence. She texted me this morning saying, ‘I’m still trying to heal from this. There is so much noise in my brain. I don’t know how to handle it. I do not feel good. My family is not feeling well. I can’t even understand what really happened to us. There are so many children going through the same experience. At the forum, I remember asking those ladies who were making that horrible sound with their horns, to try and silence the voices of community members asking for solutions –

Wait what? Who was doing this and why?

They came from a specific group that attends community meetings with the police. They have posters saying WE LOVE POLICE OFFICERS, WE SUPPORT POLICE ACTIONS, and things like that. And they broke those horns that they use when you watch soccer games. I had to stop them, and I asked them: ‘Do you think your noise will help the affected families? To feel safe? Watch who is sitting next to you – children curl up, like in a fetal position, because they think the noise you make is going to cause them more pain.

Your city councilor, Curren Price, said on Monday that he lived 10 blocks from the explosion and felt the blast wave, but he also said he had no idea this operation was happening.

It is a mistake. If you are a representative in the political arena and there is police activity, you always get the information first hand. Later I will demand accounts, reports – it could take years. But I don’t think that’s the most important. I want to put them to work so people can go home and have the resources they need. During this time, the investigation takes place. Because if you don’t put people first, you are setting yourself up for failure.

The scene still seems so devastated. How are people doing today?

Let me give you an example. One of the families learned that there was this community group ready to cover their broken windows [with plywood]. A lot of families told us that they were put in hotels that are not really nice, really scary places to be with their children. So if they’re traumatized by what’s happened to them, and they find these people saying, “I’m going to put plywood in your windows so you can come back”, you’re going to say yes. But they’ll remove the damage – the evidence – and then what will the claim be? When you have a crime scene, you don’t touch anything, you walk with the expert, you take pictures, you do a loss assessment and they keep a log.

And just because the city fixed your window, that doesn’t mean the structure was really safe to come back. You can’t trust anyone who comes to your door and says, “I’m from town and I’m going to fix your property” just because they show a badge. When they fix something, it’s on behalf of the city, not on behalf of the customer.

They said the number of families displaced and financially affected, but you also obviously have damage. So are we talking about hundreds of people whose lives have been turned upside down?

I can’t even tell you how other people feel. But they were really hurt. Emotionally, economically. They have nowhere else to go. And these are families who were already behind with their rents. What if the owner decides to sell the property because it is too damaged, or he doesn’t want to deal with the bureaucracy and all that paperwork, he decides to sell it to the one of those speculators coming in?

So you’ve seen people make offers.

They were here before the incident. I always get at least two or three phone calls a day. We receive invitations by mail. We receive these brochures, CASH FOR KEYS.

The city councilor said he would protect this neighborhood from gentrification and speculative development.

I do not see this happening with the measures taken. Because if he’s really about it, he wouldn’t allow a lot of projects to come near us. It builds affordable housing in specific places, but people inside a community are still not eligible. They bring in people from the outside to live here. So we see it as a way to divide and conquer ourselves even more.

What do you hope to see happen in the neighborhood in the coming months?

My greatest hope is to gain genuine support not only for two blocks of affected families, but also for a wider radius, like three miles apart. This is why so many people have come to the forum to express themselves. It can be fireworks, it can cut resources, it can shut down a library, it can be a church – something like that really impacts communities.

Next step is I want to create a space for families so that we can help them because they have the forms to file claims – but no one is going to tell them what it means to tick that box. I want to find a space away from the city so that they can feel confident and bring in lawyers to file these claims without involving the municipal district. They can ask questions in a confidential setting. Because if I’m waiting for the city – oh, no, I learned my lesson years ago.

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