‘Like a War Zone': Residents Remain Evacuated for Second Day After Deadly Fireworks Explosion

Residents were out of their homes for a second day following the powerful blast that knocked out windows and doors from homes located blocks away.

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What to Know

  • A fireworks stockpile exploded Tuesday, killing two people at an Ontario residence.
  • The debris field was scattered across about 80 properties in the neighborhood.
  • Investigators collected 60 27-gallon boxes of unexploded fireworks.

Investigators continued Wednesday to collect unexploded fireworks on an Ontario property where a stockpile exploded Tuesday killing two people and sending residents running for cover and running to save people and animals in what the mayor described as a "war zone."

Mayor Paul S. Leon said he wanted to try to find the "heroes" who ran through yards after several concussive blasts Tuesday rocked the city.

He said he rushed over to the area before the second explosion. Windows were burst out. People were crying.

"There was absolute mayhem in the skies," he said. "It sounded like a war zone."

Two people were killed when the large fireworks stash exploded in the inland Southern California community, setting off a series of blasts and sending a towering smoke plume over the neighborhood. Smoke continued to waft from the neighborhood early Wednesday morning as authorities continued to search a debris field that covered about 80 properties.

Bomb technicians worked Wednesday to collect the unexploded fireworks with the goal of destroying them so they don't do any further damage.

They planned to sift through the rubble Thursday and said residents wouldn't return to the neighborhood until they deemed it safe. Residents remained evacuated at shelters and hotels.

Photos: Deadly Fireworks Explosion Shatters Windows and Scatters Debris in Ontario Neighborhood

Authorities said Wednesday morning there are two people missing after the blast. The missing men, possibly cousins, were identified as Alex, and Ceasar Paez, ages 38 and 20. Authorities could not immediately confirm whether they are the deceased individuals who were found in the backyard of the heavily damaged residence.

Authorities, including the FBI, are investigating the explosion of what were believed to be commercial-grade fireworks in Ontario, about 35 miles east of Los Angeles. About 50 firefighters still worked to douse the flames three hours after the initial blast as the popping sound of more fireworks could still be heard.

"I truthfully thought somebody was bombing us," said resident Jamie Ortega, wrapped in a blanket outside her home. "I was scared. My husband wasn't home, so I didn't know what was happening."

Smaller explosions could still be heard after 7 p.m. Tuesday and smoke was still coming from the property. The condition of the building was considered too dangerous for investigators to enter late Tuesday.

Fireworks are illegal in Ontario, as they are in many California cities. Ontario Police Chief Mike Lorenz said officers have been called to the area in the past on reports of fireworks being set off.

"Based on the volume of the explosion and what happened, this is unique," said Lorenz.

Officials didn’t immediately have information about where the cache in the explosion came from, or what was happening in the home where the blasts erupted.

“We don’t know anything about the fireworks right now,” Ontario Fire Chief Ray Gayk said, adding that in his 30-year career he's never seen anything like what happened Tuesday.

The only way I can describe it -- picked up the house and dropped it. Didn't feel like an earthquake. Wasn't thunder. It was nothing I've ever felt before.

Resident Trina Barich

The two people who were killed appeared to be inside or around the home, Gayk said. Three other people had minor injuries and weren’t hospitalized, Gayk said.

Others nearby were able to escape, authorities said.

Emergency crews responded around midday following reports of multiple blasts. Residents described an initial explosion, then a second larger blast that shook house.

"The only way I can describe it -- picked up the house and dropped it," said resident Trina Barich. "Didn't feel like an earthquake. Wasn't thunder. It was nothing I've ever felt before."

At least two people died in the explosion. Hetty Chang reported on NBC4 News on Tuesday, March 16, 2021.

Oscar Vargas Ibarra, 17, who lives two houses from explosion site, told the Los Angeles Times that when the first blast hit, they grabbed their dog and bolted into the street. The teenager said he knew people living at the destroyed home had fireworks, although he didn’t know how many.

“They always pop them off, random sometimes, like at night shows or a holiday,” he said.

Firefighters managed to free a horse on the property that was trapped against a fence near a pile of burning debris. Another horse managed to escape unharmed.

Several neighbors said windows at their homes were shattered by the initial blast. Hours later, several smaller blasts went off, apparently from remaining fireworks, and a plume of smoke rose from the area.

People nearby were evacuated until the area is declared safe, fire officials said. The Red Cross is assisting 24 families -- 100 people -- with shelter in hotel rooms, meals, health needs and other resources

Copyright Associated Press
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