Calif. neighborhood evacuated after WWII explosives are found in backyard
The rusting cache included World War II-era artillery projectiles, a bomb casing, a pineapple grenade, mortar rounds and an array of large-caliber bullets
By Joseph Serna
Los Angeles Times
LAWNDALE, Calif. — No one knows how long the explosives had been sitting there in the backyard.
The rusting cache of ordnance included World War II-era artillery projectiles, a bomb casing, a pineapple grenade, mortar rounds and an array of large-caliber bullets.
Lawndale residents say the home in the 1400 block of Avis Avenue once belonged to an elderly woman and her son -- a former member of the military. They both died some time ago, however, and ever since then a cast of unfamiliar faces had been seen parading in and out of the home at all hours.
The lawn became tangled with long grass and littered with garbage bags, while broken down cars occupied its driveway. Over the summer, a car fire occurred in front of the home and nearby vehicles have been burglarized.
Then on Thursday night, a Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy investigating a report of a suspicious person interviewed a man sitting in a car in front of the home, officials said. The man said he was on parole, then told deputies to check the backyard.
There, lying in the grass and inside a shed, were dozens of pieces of unexploded ordnance. There was no way of knowing whether they were live and what might set them off.
What followed next was an anxious 15-hour ordeal for nearly 100 neighborhood residents who were told to flee their homes as bomb disposal experts descended on the shabby single-story home that was surrounded by thick grass and broken-down cars.
The evacuation order came down around 11 p.m. Thursday. Residents in three square blocks were told to leave their homes immediately. Some rushed from their homes wearing only their pajamas, and left behind their cellphones and wallets.
Joseph Saravia, 57, and his wife, Sarah, were sleeping when they heard helicopters buzzing over their home.
Then came an aggressive pounding on their door.
"I thought somebody was trying to get in my house," Saravia told the Los Angeles Times.
His neighbor, Boshra Bermaba, 48, recounted a similar story.
Still wearing the same plaid blue pajama pants, white sneakers and white jacket from the night before, Bermaba said Friday afternoon that he grabbed his wife and kids and ran to a nearby 7-Eleven when deputies ordered them to leave. The convenience store parking lot was designated as a "safe zone" from any potential blast.
Twelve hours after they were rousted from their homes, the evacuated residents were growing restless at midday Friday.
"We're waiting to see what time we can go home," Saravia said. "We're tired."
"And hungry," his wife added.
Bermaba, who left his home without his credit card, wallet or driver's license said he was not able to go to work Friday.
Erika Rodriguez, 31, and Ana Herrarte, 27, walked up to an officer guarding the perimeter with their arms filled with bags and carrying suitcases. They had just returned from out of town and learned through Facebook that their neighborhood was evacuated.
"You never know what people have in their backyard," Herrarte said. "Literally."
Sheriff's officials said they had discovered 15 to 30 military explosives, many of them inert. Photos released by the Sheriff's Department showed the casing for an aerial bomb, artillery shells, two grenades, mortar rounds and scattered large-caliber bullets.
Authorities said the man they contacted in front of the house Thursday was arrested for possessing a loaded firearm, but he had no connection to the explosives in the back.
Residents were finally allowed to return home just after 2:15 p.m. Friday.
Richard Nguyen, 26, stepped out of a car, bleary eyed with his small dog in tow as he made his way back home. He said he still didn't feel very safe, "not after the events that I've seen."
Amalia Solis, 25, lived two houses down from the house with the ordnance. Although she stayed with family nearby during the evacuation, she said she got only three hours of sleep. She said she was shocked to learn what was happening.
"Oh, my god, it was scary," Solis said. "It's a scary moment."
The first thing she said she plans to do when she gets home is take a shower and relax. "It's been a long day," she said.
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