ESCONDIDO, California (Reuters) - Demolition teams on Thursday burned down an explosives-packed house in suburban San Diego that authorities called the largest cache of homemade bomb-making materials ever found in the United States.
Flames roared, and thick, toxic gray smoke billowed from the single-story, wood-framed “bomb house” as the long-planned controlled incineration began shortly before 11 a.m. local time, touched off by remote control.
The structure was engulfed within minutes, and five gunshot-like bangs rang out, accompanied by intermittent, loud popping and crackling sounds, before the most intense phase of the fire died down within 35 minutes.
By early afternoon, the house was reduced to rubble and ash, with just a brick chimney and fireplace left standing.
Fire and law enforcement officials declared the demolition a success. No one was hurt, and there was no visible damage to nearby homes, they said.
“There were so many moving parts in this operation, and we’re just glad it came together and worked,” San Diego County Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman Jan Caldwell told reporters.
Anxious residents who left the area under evacuation orders returned relieved to find their homes unscathed.
“We are so grateful to the Sheriff’s Department because they were so polite and helpful and thoughtful, and because this went off without a hitch,” said retired Chicago police officer Frank Collurafici, who lives with his wife just four doors away from condemned property.
The house, located in a quiet, middle-class neighborhood of Escondido, about 25 miles north of San Diego, was the rented home of George Jakubec, 54, an unemployed software engineer.
He was arrested last month after police found the dwelling crammed with high explosives, bomb-making materials, handmade grenades, guns and ammunition mixed in with paper and other debris piled floor to ceiling.
Bomb disposal experts ultimately decided the volatile contents of the house made it too dangerous to clear out and process as a crime scene, leaving them no alternative but to burn it to the ground.
Authorities have not suggested a possible motive for the bomb collection. But court documents in the case say Jakubec, a native of Serbia who has been in the United States over 20 years, has admitted to three bank holdups.
He was charged in an eight-count federal indictment last week with bank robbery and various explosives offenses. He pleaded not guilty on Monday and remains jailed without bond.
San Diego County prosecutor Terri Perez said the house contained “the largest quantity of these types of homemade explosives (ever found) at one place in the United States.” Federal investigators agreed.
At least 60 nearby homes were evacuated hours before the blaze began -- authorities had advised a total of 200 families to leave -- and Caldwell said she expected everyone would be able to return by mid-afternoon.
Officials spent days safeguarding surrounding homes, the nearest of which sits 20 feet from the torched house. A 16-foot-high barrier was erected between them in advance.
Houses close to the “bomb house” also were sprayed ahead of time with fire-retardant foam and gel, nearby trees and brush were cleared and a section of Interstate 15 that runs within 200 feet was shut down for nearly two hours.
Special pollution monitors showed a brief spike in toxicity levels around the blaze before air quality returned to normal, Caldwell said. A thick plume of smoke over the house dissipated as the fire died down, and Caldwell said the blaze would be allowed to smolder through much of the day.
The burned home came under scrutiny on November 18 when a gardener working there was injured by an explosion.
Personnel from some 50 agencies took part in the burn operation, including hazardous materials teams, firefighters, bomb squad technicians and sheriff’s deputies.
The blaze was remotely ignited using detonation cords and black powder, after wooden pallets were placed inside and holes were cut in the roof to help the fire burn more quickly.
California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger recently issued an emergency declaration freeing the state of liability for destroying the house, owned by a San Francisco Bay-area woman, according to county property records.
Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Greg McCune
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