Los Angeles

Months Later, Residents Wait for Help

The fire blew out the front and back windshields on Juan Rosas' car. It blew out a window on the side of the house and damaged his roof.

Rosas' neighborhood is infused with a mix of smells: cookies, bacon, coffee, shampoo from factories one street over. Another smell also permeates the air — a metallic-like rubber from the shell of a recycling center that burned down in the early morning hours of June 14.

Rosas lives in a mixed industrial-and-residential neighborhood in the 1.2-square-mile city of Maywood in southeast Los Angeles County. Hundreds of residents on East 52nd Street were evacuated after a massive magnesium-fueled fire destroyed a metals recycling plant.

The only thing that separates the single-family homes from the warehouse and a row of other businesses is a brick wall for some and a chain-link fence for others.

As the U.S. EPA assesses the environmental damage from the Superfund cleanup site and investigators probe the cause of the blaze, residents are continuing to pick up the pieces of their lives.

They're dealing with insurance carriers and lawyers. They're worried about the health effects from the toxic fire. They want to know what neighboring businesses manufacture day in and day out.

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Along with the Superfund response cleanup, residents say part of the problem is they're still left to wonder what the other businesses are doing because of the complicated oversight.

"As a resident, I'd like to know, 'Who's my neighbor?'" said Rosas. "What do they do? What are they manufacturing? How often do they manufacture?"

He fears for his aging parents.

"My parents are elderly," he said. "I'm concerned for everybody here. It's hard to prove medically, but I don't think it's very healthy to be smelling smells like burned tire. You can just imagine what kind of havoc it's wreaking on all our health."

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Spectacular Explosions

The fire June 14 engulfed Panda International Trading Co., a metal scrap yard, and threatened the homes behind. Toxic smoke fueled by aluminum, zinc, lead, sulfuric acid and magnesium from the warehouse threatened not only the neighborhood but firefighters' assault on the flames.

"The explosions were more spectacular than any special effects company ever made," Rosas said. "Everyone here is extremely lucky."

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Rosas' father, Felipe, 67, a pious Catholic who wears a hand-carved Rosary around his neck, is thankful nobody got hurt.

The retired janitor recalled the fire's orange glow, the rising flames, the "earthshaking" explosions and blinding light.

He gathered up his family and belongings, went outside and knocked on neighbors' windows to alert them to the oncoming flames.

He worried about losing the home that he worked hard to buy in 1980 so he could raise his two sons.

"There goes the whole lifelong struggle," he recalls. "I thought for sure I was going to lose it, where my kids grew up. I thought that was the end of it."

'Everybody Was Scared'

Yesenia Jaramillo thought she was going to die.

Her bedroom is 6 feet away from the recycling plant that blew up. She was deep asleep by the time the fire erupted after 2 that morning. A police officer's knock at her bedroom window woke her up. She scooped up her two dogs and rushed outside to safety with her two daughters, son and husband.

"Everybody was scared," she said of the panicked residents who were also evacuated onto the street.

She and her family spent three days at a YMCA shelter, wearing only the pajamas they rushed out of the house in. After the YMCA, they spent a month in three different hotels before they were allowed back into their home. She returned to glass shards everywhere, including her sofa and mattresses. She recorded the scene with her phone.

"Dios mio," she said at one point while walking over glass.

The explosions from the fire blew out all but one of her windows.

The place has been cleaned up and she bought new furniture, but she's not sleeping well. She retained an attorney two months ago to try to get reimbursed for her losses. She says she's owed money from the promised $125 a day for her family during their relocation.

"Some days we didn't get any money," she said.

She says she suffers from nausea and got a prescription for sleeping pills and depression. She says she jumps when a car backfires in her neighborhood.

"My hair's falling out," she said. "I can't really sleep at night."

She says a family of seven moved out of the neighborhood at the beginning of September because they feared for their health.

"They were scared about the smell and dust from the site," she said.

Jaramillo says she can't afford to move. She's a stay-at-home mom. Her husband drives a tour bus and the offices are close by.

Some have rallied behind the neighborhood since the fire.

Neighbors Help Neighbors

Marcos Oliva, a resident from Bell, started reaching out to Maywood residents two years ago when he was a volunteer with the Citizens Emergency Response Team for Cudahy and Bell, and Maywood.

When the fire broke out, he took pictures with his cellphone and alerted fellow CERT members.

"I was terrified," he said. "Poor people — all that smoke that they're inhaling and breathing."

Oliva met with concerned residents wanting to know about relocation and cleanup. He said they felt like they had been left in the dark.

"They were anxious, frustrated," he said. "They wanted answers."

Oliva's wife, Diane, said Maywood, Bell, Cudahy, tiny cities all right next to each other, are all affected by this fire.

"Whatever air they breathe the other cities breathe," she said. "It's going to affect all of us."

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