Bomb techs fill dozens of bins with fireworks during cleanup at fatal blast site in Ontario

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Richard Winton, Lila Seidman
·4 min read
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Ontario, CA - March 16: Debris is scattered after a massive blast caused by exploding fireworks on 1700 block of Fern Avenue on Tuesday, March 16, 2021 in Ontario, CA.(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
Debris is scattered after a massive blast caused by exploding fireworks in an Ontario neighborhood Tuesday. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

During ongoing cleanup at an Ontario home that burned Tuesday afternoon after an explosion, bomb technicians have found enough fireworks to fill dozens of large storage bins, city officials said.

Authorities loaded about 80 containers, each holding the equivalent of 27 gallons, with unexploded fireworks during the cleanup Thursday. That's in addition to 60 bins filled Wednesday at the property in the 400 block of West Francis Street, Ontario spokesperson Dan Bell said.

Officials expect to fill about 80 more containers Friday.

Twenty-four bomb technicians from Riverside and Orange counties as well as the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are combing through the site, which initially detonated shortly before 1 p.m. Tuesday.

"They are burning the materials to make it safe," Bell said, adding that they have yet to tackle anything inside the building.

Some of the stash was detonated Wednesday, sending up more smoke and echoing loud booms throughout the neighborhood. More fireworks and explosives were set off Thursday as the area continues to be cleared, Ontario Police Officer Bill Lee said.

Ontario Fire Chief Ray Gayk said there are additional large fireworks that "should not be disturbed" and will be destroyed in place Friday morning.

The fireworks they're finding are not legal in California, Gayk said, describing them as as having very large shells.

"It's very dangerous to move them," he said.

Bell said the pyrotechnics are not the kind used in commercial displays, as was initially thought, but are still big and powerful. Sources familiar with the investigation suspect they are the type sold in underground markets.

Cesar Paez-Vasquez, 20, and Alex Paez, 38, are believed to have died in the explosion, according to preliminary identifications by the Ontario Police Department.

Both men, who have been missing since Tuesday, are connected to the family who lives at the property, authorities said.

According to a GoFundMe account set up by Paez's sister, he was married and had three children, including a newborn girl.

"These two young, driven souls had their lives tragically taken due to an explosion in Ontario, CA," Guadalupe Paez wrote in the online fundraiser. "Along with this, their homes are now in ruins leaving their families with a heavy weight on their shoulders not knowing what is next."

In 2009, Alex Paez was convicted of misdemeanor failure to obey a police officer during a traffic stop, according to San Bernardino County court records.

About two years earlier, he was charged with grand theft, to which he pleaded guilty. That followed an arrest by Fontana police. He was sentenced to 150 days in jail — the term he already served — and three years of probation, court records show.

Tuesday's explosion displaced scores of neighbors. The American Red Cross said it was assisting 29 families totaling 112 people with emergency shelter in hotel rooms, meals and other resources. Bell said some neighbors are staying with friends and relatives.

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An evacuation order remains in place for the immediate blast area. It was not immediately clear how long the investigation or the evacuation order would last.

"We don't want to bring them back into an area that's unsafe," Lee said of the evacuated residents. "So we're working to make the area safe and to try to bring them back home as soon as possible."

More than 80 properties in the surrounding area need to be investigated and cleared, in addition to the site of the explosion, Bell said. Authorities are also surveying the extent of the damage. Windows were shattered by the force of the blast, and burning debris set some small fires on nearby lawns.

"We have to go to each house in the debris area and make sure it's safe," Bell said.

For the record:
4:16 PM, Mar. 18, 2021: An earlier version of this story said 60 bins full of fireworks were found at the property. Technicians found enough loose fireworks to fill 60 bins.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.