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In South LA 'Nothing Is Going To Be Normal Again' After Fireworks Explosion

People crowd near a police barrier near an emergency vehicle.
People gather near the site of the fireworks explosion
(Austin Cross
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Natalie Quintanilla remembers everything.

Last year she was living on 27th street in South L.A. in an apartment with three of her kids.

On the evening of June 30th, she heard a bit of a commotion. “So I wake up. I open the curtains and I'm like, what is going on. I see like four or five officers,” Quintanilla said.

A Los Angeles Police Department officer told her they found a bunch of fireworks in one of her neighbors' homes and that a bomb squad would detonate them on the street in a special containment vehicle.

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“They told us there was going to be a loud noise…not to get scared,” she says. “They just told us we're going to hear a big ol' bang, boom.”

The police told Quintanilla to evacuate, so she told her kids they had five minutes to get their shoes on. The family left the home, and they went shopping and ate some Chinese food. Then they went to the lavandería on her block to wait it out with her neighbors.

Then, says Quintanilla: “I just seen, like, a big wave of fire of orange. It was something out of a movie.”

Upended Lives

The detonation went terribly wrong. The fireworks tore through the containment vehicle, flipped a nearby car and broke the glass in the lavandería where many were congregated. The explosion injured 17 people and damaged several homes in the predominately Latino neighborhood, displacing roughly 80 people. Some of the people affected still haven’t been able to move back, and are living in hotels.

Instead of making it easier for us, they’re making it harder for us.
— Natalie Quintanilla

Quintanilla had to stay in a hotel with her kids last year because the windows of her apartment were blown out. The LAPD admitted their responsibility for theexplosion, but she says getting help from the city was a full time job. She had to negotiate for everything.

“Instead of making it easier for us, they’re making it harder for us,” she says about that time last year.

The negotiation eventually paid off, though. She received $10,000 and several months of housing at the Level, a luxury hotel in downtown. Then in December, Councilmember Curren Price’s office helped her move into an apartment a few blocks from her old place.

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How Did The City Do?

Quintanilla says some of her neighbors, especially older folks, didn’t feel good about taking money from the city. They didn't really trust the funds officials were providing because they feared retribution when it came to taxes or other issues, she says. But other residents don’t think they got enough help, and are suing.

Jose Becerra’s house was located right outside of the blast. He lost hearing in his right ear, and some of his family members had to get stitches where they were cut by glass.

“Nothing is going to be normal again,” he says. 

Becerra and 21 other victims are being represented by the same law firm. He wants to be compensated for his medical expenses and damage to his cars. Most of all, though, he wants to move back into his house, which is still being repaired by the city.

“You say, they're gonna do this, like in three months, it's almost one year,” he says. “You are fixing the house only. So we have the hope in the next two months, the house is gonna be ready. So I want to the city to be more human with us. It's really hard.” 

We called up Councilmember Curren Price’s office and ask about this. The office reps say Becerra’s house should be ready by the end of July.

A Year Later On 27th Street

We went back to 27th Street this week to see how things look, and feel.

Two LAPD patrol cars continue to stay vigilant at the ends of the street. Parts of the block look totally normal. But other parts look like they were just hit by the blast. Some houses and apartment buildings are vacant with boarded-up windows. It’s quiet, but people still live here.

We met Jose Guerrero, originally from Jalisco, Mexico, as we walked down the block. He's lived in his home — located about 10 houses down the blast — with his family for 40 years.

He told us that his house was damaged — windows, paint and part of the structure of the house — but he was grateful for the funds and resources he received to get it fixed. "We're almost done [repairing]," he says in Spanish.

It's been a year since dozens of emergency personnel, cops and the media flocked to his block. He says he hasn’t seen the media stop by in a while.

“Gracias” for checking back in with us, he says as we begin to walk away.

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