Authorities burn down explosive-laden CA house
ESCONDIDO, Calif. – In the end, there were no big explosions. No flames leaping from house to house. Just residents, watching anxiously as a house packed with explosives in their neighborhood went up in flames.
All of it, thankfully, without a hitch.
"I feel better," said Pat MacQueen, 76, standing on a porch Thursday as reddish-orange flames rose into the sky about a block away.
The blaze devoured the ranch-style house filled with so much homemade explosive material that authorities said they had no choice but to burn it to the ground. It popped and crackled. At one point, a deep boom from the fire echoed through the neighborhood.
"Oh, that's scary," said MacQueen, who moved to the San Diego suburb about 11 years ago.
While the immediate safety threat had passed, MacQueen and other residents were still haunted by the man who rented the house — George Jakubec. How did he amass so much explosive material, as authorities say, and what did he plan to do with it?
Investigators are still trying to find those answers as Jakubec sits in jail on bomb-making and bank robbery charges.
Their immediate concern, however, disintegrated in less than an hour.
The plan was to stoke a fire so hot — at least 1,800 degrees — that it would neutralize the volatile chemicals before they could cause major explosions. Crews built a 16-foot firewall and covered it with fire resistant gel to protect the closest home at least a dozen feet away.
Firefighters and ambulances were on hand, just in case.
The fire began with puffs of smoke that rapidly grew larger, thicker and blacker. It billowed up through holes in the roof before flames overtook the house. The smoke rose about a half-mile into the sky.
The inferno was shown live on cable news networks and over the Internet.
Onlookers snapped pictures with cameras and cell phones. They "oohed and ahhed" over popping noises that authorities said were likely hand grenades and ammunition.
"Oh my gosh! Look at those flames. They are as high as those trees. That's scary," said Shirley Abernethy, 82, looking on from a porch about a block away at the height of the fire.
The flames quickly consumed the attached garage and then large chunks of the house. Within minutes, the wooden frame was exposed and nearby shrubs were burning. A remote-controlled fire sprinkler nearby was activated to keep the fire from spreading.
Nearly all of the home was destroyed in about 30 minutes.
"This has gone according to plan," said Jan Caldwell, a spokeswoman for the San Diego County Sheriff's Department.
The plume drifted away from houses and toward Interstate 15, which authorities had closed for a time as a precaution.
Authorities had delayed the burn as they waited for an atmospheric condition known as an inversion layer — which traps warm air and could have held the toxic smoke close to the ground — to clear.
Afterward, as a plume of gray smoke rose into the sky behind her, Caldwell added proudly: "It's a good day for a fire."
The fire will likely smolder for much of the day, she said.
Officials said they received no reports of high levels of pollutants in the air. San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore said the toxicity levels were probably lower during the fire than they are when traffic flows down the nearby freeway.
"I don't think it could have gone any better to be quite honest," Gore said.
Residents, who had been evacuated from the neighborhood, were expected to be allowed to return by Thursday night.
Authorities plan to assess the property and then bring in hazardous material crews to remove two to six inches of topsoil from the half-acre lot to ensure no dangerous residue was left behind.
Police and prosecutors can now turn their full attention to Jakubec.
The out-of-work software consultant, 54, has pleaded not guilty to charges of making destructive devices and robbing three banks.
Jakubec rented the house for more than a year. Authorities say he filled it with enormous quantities of explosive chemicals, including the kinds used by suicide bombers and insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The materials included Pentaerythritol tetranitrate, or PETN, the explosive used in the 2001 airliner shoe-bombing attempt as well as airplane cargo bombs discovered last month.
Bomb experts determined the house was too dangerous to enter, so they drew up plans to burn it down.
The home was so cluttered with unstable chemicals that even bomb-disposing robots couldn't be used to enter it, for fear of setting off an explosion. Nearly every room had piles of explosive material and items related to making homemade bombs, prosecutors said.
A coffee table was found cluttered with documents and strewn with detonators, they said.
In the backyard, bomb technicians found six mason jars with highly unstable Hexamethylene triperoxide diamine, which can explode if stepped on. Prosecutors said they did not know of a commercial use for it in the U.S.
The jars were discovered after a gardener accidentally set off an explosion by stepping on a byproduct of the chemical that had been on the ground, prosecutors said. Investigators said Jakubec told them he had been dumping the byproduct in the backyard.
As Abernethy watched the fire, she wondered how all of it could have happened in her neighborhood.
"Some people have crazy minds," she said. "You just never know who you are living next to."
Associated Press writer Elliot Spagat contributed to this report.