In an Ontario neighborhood where the explosion of a horde of commercial-grade fireworks in March 2021 killed two people and caused $3.2 million in damage, the physical scars have largely healed.
But emotionally, for some residents, there are still open wounds.
Heading into this Fourth of July, residents here, beneath the bellies of jets taking off from Ontario International Airport, still illegally shoot off fireworks even after last year’s catastrophe, although some say fewer are launched these days.
Maple Street resident Antonio Gutierrez’s home backs up to the Francis Street property where the fireworks, stored in a back house, blew up. The blast killed the men handling them, cousins Alex Paez, 38, and Cesar Paez, 20, who are remembered by crosses that lean against charred trees in the yard in which they perished.
The explosion shattered windows, cracked stucco and damaged roofs nearby, and even rattled windows miles away. Investigators were never able to determine why the cousins had the fireworks, how they obtained them, or whether anyone else was involved.
That day is a reminder of how much havoc fireworks, if improperly stored or deployed, can leave behind.
In Gutierrez’s backyard, the explosion’s force grotesquely twisted the metal pipes he used to build horse stables.
Now, Gutierrez takes medication to help him sleep, and he has anxiety from interviewing a parade of contractors. Fireworks bother him “a little bit.” He has gained 75 pounds. The gregarious property manager who owns an impressive collection of vintage turntables and other audio relics does little socializing anymore.
“I don’t go to parties,” Gutierrez said. “I just hang by myself. I don’t like leaving my home. I worry something is going to happen.”
Just this past Monday, authorities seized 14,000 pounds of fireworks from a storage facility and a home in Azusa.
On June 30, 2021– three months after the Ontario explosion — the Los Angeles Police Department mishandled the detonation of improvised explosive devices that had been found among the 5,000 pounds of fireworks discovered at a South L.A. home. When police ignited the explosives in a special truck, the shockwave injured 17 people and damaged three dozen homes and businesses.
Last month, a Moreno Valley man blew off two fingers while handling fireworks.
And the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office continues to weigh whether to charge anyone regarding a fireworks accident that killed an 8-year-old San Bernardino boy last July 4, spokeswoman Jacqueline Rodriguez said this week.
In response to the Ontario explosion, city officials now attempt to act quicker on residents’ reports of illegal fireworks, spokesman Dan Bell said. Unless police see someone actually shooting off fireworks, he added, they can’t issue a citation. So the MyOntario phone app allows people to take a photo and send it to the city, automatically adding the location.
“It gets sent in right away and we can (sort) through those,” Bell said.
A dedicated page on the city’s website, Ontario.gov/NoFireworks, lets people report illegal fireworks as well.
Bell encourages those witnessing fireworks being launched to call the non-emergency dispatch number, 909-408-1900. The city has taken its campaign to electronic billboards along the 10 Freeway, and at the Ontario Convention Center and Toyota Arena.
The Orange County sheriff’s bomb squad assisted at the Ontario explosion, said Sgt. Todd Hylton, a department spokesman, adding that that agency’s deputies confiscate “tons” of illegal fireworks every year.
Investigators, when they find illegal fireworks, attempt to trace them back to their point of origin in hopes of finding large caches, Hylton said.
“Everybody’s concerned,” said Capt. Sean Doran, also with the Orange County Fire Authority. “Law enforcement, hospitals, fire departments, the community.”
Doran, echoing sentiments of officials throughout California, encourages residents to attend public fireworks shows, where the explosives are set off by professionals, instead of handling fireworks themselves.
“You know you are going to go home without injuries caused by fireworks,” he said.
Gutierrez had been away from home the morning of the 12:30 p.m. explosion on March 16, 2021, but “something told me” to pick up his special-needs son before heading to his next errand. That action, Gutierrez said, likely saved the life of his son, who enjoys spending time in their spacious backyard.
“I had metal posts stuck to the stucco, like spears,” the elder Gutierrez recalled. “We had a port-a-potty that looked like an egg.”
There’s still work to do.
Last week, a crew polished the brickwork on the front of his home. And there’s a crack in the stucco on the outside of the back of the house.
Another Maple Street resident, Salvador Sanchez, 48, moved back in only this May after his family waited for repairs to be completed.
Sanchez had just finished eating lunch when he heard and felt the explosion.
“The fireworks, they exploded, and exploded and exploded,” he said.
Windows, walls, the ceiling and furniture were all damaged.
So was he.
Gutierrez said he has spoken to a psychologist about a half-dozen times about the anxiety he feels.
Last July 4, he couldn’t bear to be home as the fireworks went off, so the family went on a trip. This year, Sanchez said, his nerves have improved enough that at least he can stay home on Independence Day.
“Sometimes when I hear the big fireworks, I feel something, still,” Sanchez said.