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South LA fireworks explosion that injured 17 resulted from ‘catastrophic failure’ during planned detonation

SOUTH LOS ANGELES (KABC) — Officials say what was supposed to be a safe operation to destroy a cache of illegal fireworks turned into a “total, catastrophic failure” of a Los Angeles police bomb squad vehicle that resulted in a massive explosion in South Los Angeles, rocking a neighborhood and injuring 17 people, including 10 law enforcement officers.

A Los Angeles police bomb squad truck was destroyed from the blast Wednesday, and the vehicle remained on the street in the 700 block of East 27th Street near San Pedro Street Thursday morning as investigators worked to maintain the integrity of the scene.

A national Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives team was expected to arrive Thursday to conduct their investigation.

“This was completely unexpected. They followed all the protocols in place. It was not really one of these explosions that was unplanned. This was planned,” LAPD Lt. Raul Jovel said at a press conference Thursday morning.

Officials say the material being inside the LAPD truck made the blast more dangerous.

“You put a destructive device inside a closed container where it’s pressurized, when it blows up, that is a big punch,” Jovel said. “If some of these devices were to explode in the open, the impact would be a lot less because the blast would really go in all directions.”

VIDEO: Terrified residents describe South LA explosion

Aerial footage from AIR7 HD showed first responders treating injured residents at the scene Wednesday night.

Officials say those injured include 10 LAPD officers, who were all described as in fair condition with minor injuries; one ATF officer in fair condition with minor injuries; six civilians – three with moderate injuries and three with minor injuries. One patient did not need to be transported.

Several homes in the area were also damaged and city officials were evaluating them to determine if they were structurally sound.

Earlier in the day, the LAPD seized at least 5,000 pounds of illegal fireworks from a home. At a news conference Wednesday night, LAPD Chief Michel Moore said work was being done throughout the day to move illegal commercial-grade fireworks to an offsite location.

During the operation, 40 coke-can-sized improvised explosive devices with fuses and 200 additional smaller devices with similar construction were found. The material was transferred to a “total containment vehicle” with an iron chamber, which is designed to house explosive material that can be safely detonated.

When the items were detonated shortly after 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Moore said there was a “total catastrophic failure of that containment vehicle.”

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

Homes, cars and a laundromat had windows shattered and one vehicle had its side plowed in and was knocked over by the force of the blast.

Residents told Eyewitness News they felt the blast from inside a building more than a quarter-mile away.

“I was asleep when I felt like the whole bed was shaking. It felt like a really hard earthquake,” one resident said. “It sounded huge.”

“Everybody started running, and I couldn’t find my mom… Everybody was screaming, going crazy,” said 14-year-old Maricela Cortes, who was near the blast with her mother and 6-year-old sister.

MORE: LAPD seizes 5,000 pounds of illegal fireworks from South LA home

Police say they discovered the massive cache at a home on 27th Street after Newton Division officers received a tip. At least 5,000 pounds of fireworks were stored in the home, which is located in a residential neighborhood near an elementary school.

A bomb squad was called to the scene to secure and remove dozens of boxes filled with fireworks, which were set to be hauled away and destroyed with the help of Cal Fire.

One man, identified as Arturo Cejas III, was arrested on suspicion of possessing a destructive device but he also may face charges of child endangerment because his 10-year-old brother was in the home, Moore said.

“We understand that this explosive material was acquired out of state and transported here for the purposes of reselling it to community members and neighbors,” Moore said.

The explosion prompted police to evacuate nearby residents. Prior to the blast, only two homes had been evacuated.

“I would expect multiple houses destroyed had those explosives gone up,” LAPD Capt. Robert Long told Eyewitness News before the explosion.

In March, a fireworks explosion at an Ontario home killed two people.

ABC News and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2021 KABC-TV. All Rights Reserved.

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