LAPD bomb squad miscalculated explosives before South LA blast

The Los Angeles Police Department’s bomb squad apparently thought it was putting 16.5 pounds of explosive material, confiscated during a raid for illegal fireworks at a home in South L.A., inside a containment truck to safely detonate.

In fact, on that June 30 day, they may have placed 42 pounds of explosives inside – far beyond the maximum capacity of the vehicle’s blast chamber, according to the federal experts who are investigating the explosion that injured 17 people and shattered nearby buildings.

LAPD Chief Michel Moore detailed the apparent failures of the bomb squad outside the department’s headquarters on Monday, July 19, saying the incident was still under internal investigation and subject to a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives review.

He said if officers at the scene failed to follow LAPD rules for detonating explosives in a neighborhood, they would face discipline.

But he noted that the LAPD was also investigating whether it’s own rules were faulty and may have led to the devastating blast. If that was the case, he said, those officers should be “protected” for just following department standards.

“Our bomb squad is known throughout the world,” Moore said. “Clearly, this failure has identified some shortfalls.”

On the day of the blast, LAPD bomb squad officers were attempting to remove thousands of pounds of illegal fireworks found at a home in the 700 block of East 27th Street.

Among those fireworks and related materials were hundreds of homebuilt devices – about 280 M80-type firecrackers and 44 explosives the size of soda cans, Moore said.

When bomb technicians found those improvised explosives, they discovered some of them were leaking. The technicians decided then that they could not safely transport them and opted to detonate the material inside the blast chamber on site.

To estimate how much explosive power the devices had, the LAPD officers visually inspected them, passed them through an X-ray and used a bomb-detecting robot to analyze them.

The LAPD technicians did not use a scale to weigh the powder found in the devices. The ATF analysts did – weighing samples that were left over after the explosion and coming up with completely different results.

In the smaller M80s, LAPD’s technicians estimated them at half an ounce of explosive weight. The ATF found they were actually 1.5 ounces each.

The error was even greater for the larger, soda-can shaped devices – the LAPD found they contained 1.37 ounces of explosives, but the ATF determined they contained 5 ounces.

When the LAPD technicians placed them inside the blast chamber, the detonation was therefore vastly more powerful than they expected.

“There was a compounding effect,” Moore said of the apparent small errors that magnified into a terrifying explosion that rocked the $1 million-plus bomb truck, severely damaging it, and apparently sent the vehicle’s 500-pound lid sailing for four blocks.

The total 42 pounds ATF determined were placed inside the containment vessel far exceeded its capacity of 25 pounds of explosive weight.

The day after the explosion, the chief said less than 10 pounds of explosives had been placed in the truck.

The LAPD also said, initially, that authorities discovered 5,000 pounds of fireworks in Arturo Ceja III’s backyard, but ATF agents would come out and say the amount was actually 32,000 pounds of fireworks and related explosives; most of the explosives were deemed safe enough to cart away. Ceja was arrested for transporting the explosives without a license.

Recreational fireworks of any kind are not allowed in Los Angeles.

The chief said it was possible that the heat that day and stress from handling so many explosives could have contributed to LAPD officers making mistakes.

That day’s heat did prompt officers to take precautions to keep the fireworks from igniting, using fans to try to cool them.

Incensed residents of the predominantly Latino neighborhood where the explosion occurred have criticized LAPD, saying police would not have done the same procedure in a wealthier area.

However, Moore said the containment vessel had successfully detonated explosives all over the city over the last decade that it’s been in service. He noted 42 previous detonations, including in the Pacific Palisades and in the San Fernando Valley.

The containment vessel had been tested after every detonation. Officials haven’t presented any evidence publicly that the containment vessel failed.

Moore seemed to leave open the possibility that LAPD policies failed to prevent the blast. He said so far it did not appear that the officers violated any department policy concerning approving an on-site detonation.

Moore said it’s LAPD bomb squad policy to not transport some explosives – he said risks from moving them include temperature changes and static electricity that could set them off.

But other agencies around the country do transport suspected dangerous explosives using their containment vessels.

In 2018, the New York Police Department used its containment vessel to transport suspected explosive devices found at the headquarters of CNN to NYPD’s firing range in the Bronx, where the agency detonated them.

A 2014 Department of Homeland Security survey of containment vessels on the market at the time suggested that agencies could use them to move explosive devices away from populated areas and important buildings.

“When a suspect object is found, it can be contained in the chamber of a (total containment vessel) and transported away from the area to protect the facility and personnel,” DHS researchers wrote.

Moore and Michael Hoffman, the special agent in charge of the ATF’s Los Angeles division, said investigations into the blast were ongoing. An ATF report about what happened that day was expected in 30 days.

Moore apologized to the residents hurt and displaced by the blast.

“I want to personally express my apologies to every resident, business operator and customer that was traumatically impacted by this incident,” he said.

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