Los Angeles police bomb technicians attempting to safely dispose of 42 pounds of illegal fireworks they seized at a home in June vastly underestimated the weight of the explosives before their armored containment vessel was breached by a powerful blast, a contrite police chief announced Monday.
The explosion injured 17 people, including 10 law enforcement officers, and caused extensive damage to more than 20 homes and over a dozen businesses.
Chief Michel Moore of the Los Angeles Police Department said at a news conference on Monday that instead of weighing the fireworks with a scale, the bomb squad personnel estimated their weight based on a physical inspection and arrived at 16.5 pounds — 60 percent less than the weight of the fireworks later determined during an investigation by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
“I want to personally express my apologies to every resident, business operator and customer that was traumatically impacted by this incident,” Chief Moore said. “I’m sorry that this occurred.”
He assured that the officers involved were acting in “good faith” and following protocol when handling the explosives.
The miscalculation is the first major revelation from a continuing investigation by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives into the cause of the blast, which occurred after the police discovered more than 32,000 pounds of illegal fireworks in a June 30 raid at a home in South Los Angeles.
At the news conference, Chief Moore said that during the raid, officers found some leaky homemade fireworks that were deemed too unstable to transport. The officers decided to eliminate the fireworks in a chamber known as a total containment vessel, in accordance with the department’s protocol. Total containment vessels are armored vehicles designed keep people and property safe from the blast effect of an explosion, Chief Moore said.
The police department’s bomb squad put 280 M-80s — fireworks that pack powerful explosives — and 40 soda-can-size fireworks into the vessel. They calculated the explosives to weigh 16.5 pounds without using a scale, Chief Moore said. The vessel is designed to handle, at most, 25 pounds for a single use and 15 pounds for multiple uses. The investigation by the federal explosives bureau’s National Response Team found that the actual weight of the explosives was more than 42 pounds.
“That amount in itself could have taken out the entire neighborhood,” Michael Hoffman, assistant special agent in charge of the bureau’s Los Angeles office, said during the news conference.
Agent Hoffman said his agency hypothesized that this significant underestimation, along with the failure of some components in the vessel, could have resulted in the powerful uncontrolled blast. The full findings of the team’s investigation will be released in a month or two, he estimated, pending the report’s peer review.
Chief Moore said that five members of the bomb squad had been removed as a result of the explosion while they await the full investigation.
After the blast, which left many displaced without access to their homes, the Los Angeles police came under heavy scrutiny, with many questioning whether the department could have done more to protect residents in such a densely populated area, according to The Los Angeles Times.
Residents and activists in South Los Angeles have demanded full accountability from the Police Department for the blast and the extensive property damage. Some have accused the L.A.P.D. of showing disregard for the neighborhood by handling the fireworks in the middle of a lower-income residential area.
City Councilman Curren D. Price Jr., who represents the district where the explosion occurred, called the explosion an “act of negligence” and “one of the L.A.P.D.’s largest blunders in recent history, which has further betrayed the trust of our South L.A. community,” in a statement after Monday’s news conference.
Others said the police would not have acted as they did in a wealthier neighborhood.
“We believe, as so many believe, that if this had been another neighborhood, not a working-class Black and brown neighborhood in South L.A., they would not have detonated those explosives,” Paula Minor of the Los Angeles chapter of Black Lives Matter said in a news conference held Tuesday.
On July 5, the South Central Neighborhood Council passed a resolution demanding that the city financially compensate those affected by the explosion. The council called the act a “reckless decision by the L.A.P.D.” as it primarily hurt the well-being of a Black and Latino community.
“As we wait for the final report to be released, I hope L.A.P.D. is taking the actions now to address their shortcomings and are making plans to step up and support the victims of the devastation who have been traumatized and will be suffering from the effects for years to come,” Mr. Price said.