Thursday, December 9, 2010
Learn more about plans to burn down the home of a 54-year-old Escondido man accused of having a bomb factory in his house.
All Lanes of I-15 in Escondido will be closed Thursday from 9 a.m. to Noon. Details of the closure here.
The San Diego County Sheriff's department and multiple fire agencies are conducting a most unusual safety operation this morning. They plan to burn down a residence in Escondido that they say is filled with explosive material that is too dangerous to remove. Dozens of homes around George Jakubec's rented house on Via Scott have been evacuated, and a section of Interstate 15 has been closed all in an effort to make sure that no one gets hurt as a result of the burning of the bomb house.
Do you think the proper precautions have been taken or is this house burning still risky business?
KPBS Environment Reporter, Ed Joyce is in Escondido.
Andrew Cooksy, Professor of Physical Chemistry at San Diego State University
The San Diego County sheriff's department and multiple fire agencies are conducting a most unusual safety operation this morning. They plan to burn down a residence in Escondido that they say is filled with explosive material too dangerous to remove. Dozens of homes around George Jacubec's rented house on Via Scott have been evacuated, and a section of Interstate 15 has been closed all in an effort to make sure that no one gets hurt as a result of the burning of the bomb house. This morning I'm joined by our reporter in Escondido, Ed Joyce who covers environment stories for KPBS. Ed Good morning.
ED JOYCE: Good morning, Maureen.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And Andrew Cooksy is professor of physical chemistry at San Diego State University. Professor Cooksy, thank you for being here today.
ANDREW COOKSY: Glad to be here.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, we invite our listeners to join this conversation. What do you think about you will this? Do you think the proper precautions have been taken? Or is this house burning still risky business in your opinion? Give us a call with your questions and comments. The number here is 1-888-895-5727. That's 1-888-895-KPBS. So ed, what's the latest that you've heard from authorities on the scene.
ED JOYCE: The latest is there's an area version at present, which they're gonna wait for that to clear, they're gonna wait for the go-ahead from the national weather service meteorologist and the Sn Diego county officer at the weather control district to give them the go-ahead, but right now, it's looking like weather conditions will be ideal about 11 o'clock this morning for the burning of that home.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And what has the fire department or the sheriff's department, I don't know who's actually taking charge of this, but what have they done to prepare the house and neighborhood for this burn?
ED JOYCE: Well, the San Diego County sheriff's bomb arson detail's on the scene, and this morning, what they have been doing is prepping the house, pie prepping the house, they're taking out windows very carefully, poking holes in the roof to make the house burn, when it does burn, as a chimney, so it goes straight up into the air.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So when this house does burn, you took me aback there, I though it was too dangerous to go into this house, but you say the bomb squad has gone into it. I'm surprised to hear that.
ED JOYCE: Well, they have to dance around gently, they're not exactly working through the entire house, they thought have to prepare the house. They had to go in earlier and set up charges to be able to burn this house. You can't just throw a match on it and hope it goes up properly. It's a controlled -- highly controlled burn. SO they do have to do some prep work, they've just being very careful where they do that prep work. They're not working around the exact cluttered areas that the officials are concerned about that would be where the highly explosive compounds are located.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And you said something about an air inversion, or they're waiting for that to clear, and so why don't they want an air inversion? What is that?
ED JOYCE: Well, what happens is you have warm air on top of cold air, and what that does is it created a condition where if they burn the house during an air inversion, the smoke would stay lower to the ground and spread out. What they want is to have a good ventilation of the air flow, and by that, I mean they want a low wind flow blowing to the east to disburse the smoke. They want a low level disbursement of these windsexcuse me. Of the smoke.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Of the smoke. Right. And can you give us a version of the background of this story? How did this all come today?
ED JOYCE: Well, it really started last month, Novemberh early in the afternoon shortly before 1 o'clock, there was a landscape worker. He was hurt in some type of explosion at this house on Via Scott. The Escondido fire department asked for the law enforcement to show up, the county deputy sheriff showed up, they figured out the area was a possible crime scene, that's when they started security measures, they arrested or detained issue I should say, the person who was leasing the home, George Jacubeck, anyway, long story short, in the course of the investigation, they found more than nine pounds of HMDT, which is a highly volatile compound, they also found solvents issue acids, precursors to explosives [CHECK AUDIO] thought the discovery was so great, they thought this was a risk I and they stopped the recovery efforts. So because of the hazardous materials inside of the house, the goal to eliminate them is to burn the house. That seems to be the safest way. In the meantime, George Jacubeck has been charged allegedly with bomb making and other crimes,. And he's facing a minimum of 32 years in prison if convicted on these federal charges.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with Ed Joyce, he's environment reporter for KPBS, and he is in Escondido awaiting the burning of George Jacubec's house, and also in studio with her, is Andrew Cooksy. He is professor of physical chemistry at San Diego State university. What can you tell us about the nature of the chemicals found in this house and how that plays into the decision to burn this house to get rid of them?
ANDREW COOKSY: Well, the three compounds that I know that have been identified, the HMTD, ETM and PETM, they're all explosives. And HMTD is in particular is a very sensitive compound. It detonates very easily if it's scratched or if it's hit. So that makes the handling hazardous under the best of conditions, and can make transportation particularly hazardous. And so I'm sure one of the factors that played a role in the decision, if they were to transport these material to another location, they would have to transport them along city streets. And so that's perhaps one reason why the decision was made to destroy them in place.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, can you tell us how these chemicals are expected to burn? Are they expected to pose any kind of a -- create some sort of chemical cloud or anything like that in the atmosphere?
ANDREW COOKSY: Well, burning is always kind of a complex chemical reaction so it's difficult to say exactly what's formed. The good news is these are relatively small compounds issue the ones that have been identified, and when they break down. Sometimes they break down into toxic compounds but ones that are well understood. And the hazards that are posed from the products of burning the explosives are probably not greater than the hazards from the other materials that are released into the air when there's a house fire or wild fires.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I see. And we hear that the bomb squad, the authorities are waiting for this air inversion to lighten up so the smoke doesn't stay close to the ground. Is that a good idea as far as you're concerned professor cookies.
ANDREW COOKSY: Oh, certainly.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And what hazard would they pose if those chemicals in smoke form were closer to the ground?
ANDREW COOKSY: Well, the compounds that are most often form indeed high concentrations from these smaller compounds, these explosives, include carbon monoxide which is dangerous to breath [CHECK AUDIO] from any kind of house fire or wood fire, the combustion releases all kinds of much more complex molecules as well, where we just don't know what the toxicity is. So it's better safe than sorry just to release the molecules into the upper atmosphere where they'll be diluted substantially.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Right. It just lessens whatever potential risk there might be.
ANDREW COOKSY: That's right.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with professor Andrew Cooksy, and we've also been speaking with reporter Ed Joyce in Escondido and taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Let's take a call. Chris is calling from La Jolla right now. Good morning, Chris, and welcome to These Days.
NEW SPEAKER: Hi. Thanks for taking my questions. I'm curious as a home owner who owns rental property, the assailant in this case is actually not the owner of the house, he's renting. How is the fact that somebody own this house that is now being burnt down for safety reason by the city or the county, how is that being handled by with the home owner's insurance company? That sounds like a very odd situation?
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Okay. Ed, did you hear that?
ED JOYCE: Yes, I did. I haven't spoken with the owner or do not know th home owner's insurance policy, but from what I've given to understand, it's a rare occasion that you your home insurance policy would cover such a situation like this, or that you would be paying insurance to cover a situation like this. From what I understand, the homeowner is out of luck, but apparently there might be some other kind of remediation of some kind K. I should mention that before this is burned to the ground, hazmat crews will be on the scene and they'll be coordinating, removing debris after this burn is finished. That'll probably happen tomorrow.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, ed, along those lines, yesterday Mr. Jacubec's attorney filed an appeal it stop the burn from happening because what they argued was this was a crime scene. There was evidence in this crime scene that might be useful for the defense. And it was going to be eliminated because of the burn. What happened to those arguments?
ED JOYCE: Well, the US District Judge, whose name happened to be Larry Burns, denied the attorney's request to stop the burning of this Escondido home. The judge listened to bomb experts who said, you know, the home is too dangerous for exhibit to go inside, his attorney, Michael berg, Jacubec's attorney, claimed there are some documents indeed, that might be critical to the it was of George Jacubec, who pleaded not guilty. But the judge ordered that this the burning of home goes forward.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Professor Cooksy, were there any alternatives to burning? Could they perhaps have treated the house chemically in some way to make it less likely to explode?
ANDREW COOKSY: What I know from the chemical means of treating these compounds is that they have been studied primarily for application to small amounts of these explosives. In particular for remediating soil or water that's beg your pardon contaminated. I'm not aware of any reliable, safe reliable methods for making large quantities of these chemicals by chemical means. [CHECK AUDIO] treating it with acid, but the procedure was quite dangerous. And it was possible to get the compound to detonate. And so that they recommended that it be used only for small quantities.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Go ahead ed.
ED JOYCE: I just wonder if I could ask the professor a quick question. Professor, where would somebody, a civilian get ahold of these kinds of compounds and what would they be used for in evidence life?
ANDREW COOKSY: The PETM, and ETM, have both been used for medical purposes, as vasodilators like Nitroglycerin. So they have some medical application. But they way the were obtained in this case is by actually making from easy to buy starting materials. The PETN, and common use as an explosive. ETM, and HMTD not so much, HMTD was developed originally as a detonating compound, but it's so dangerous to handle that it's been superceded by safer compounds and hasn't been in use for decades.
ED JOYCE: So you're saying you could get the materials to make these compounds essentially off the shelf?
ANDREW COOKSY: The starting materials are pretty easy to find. They're not regulated. The exception is PETN. Well, it takes a lot more work to find the starting materials for that.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And why would that be? Is that because it's the most dangerous of these materials?
ANDREW COOKSY: It's just that the starting materials don't have the common uses that the starting material for HMTD and ETN have.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: My guests are professor Andrew Cooksy, and reporter Ed Joyce, and we are talking about the preparations for burning dun this rented home in via Scott that authorities say is filled with explosive material too dangerous to remove. If I heard Ed correctly, authorities are now planning it that burn for around 11:00 o'clock this morning, and we're taking your calls to find out what you think about this whole process at 1-888-895-5727. That's 1-888-895-KPBS. 'D we've heard that the neighborhood basically around this house has been evacuated, do we know where the homeowners have gone?
ED JOYCE: Well, it's up to them. They were providing shelter at a couple of different places there's an evacuation shelter set up at the Clark field house that's on the campus of cal state San Marcos. People can get in touch with the Red Cross if that's what they want to do. We're not talking thousands of people, necessarily. We're talking about a limited number of people. So you should easily go to a friend's house, maybe just go in to work for the day. Or you're hanging out thea the nearby strip mall having coffee with some of your neighbors. You know, you don't have to go that far depending on what your lifestyle is. And there's some people in a further area in a concentric circle, as it were, around the neighborhood, that have been told to stay sheltered in place, keep their doors and windows closed until it's over.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And Ed, I know that you've spoken with -- you've been up in Escondido a lot this week, and you've spoken with some of the neighbors around George Jacubec's house. What is the general feeling? Is there a general feeling about this bushing?
ED JOYCE: Well, I haven't talked to all of the homeowners certainly to ascertain an opinion that they might have as a group. But the few I did talk to didn't really seem to be too concerned. They really pointed out the overwhelming law enforcement response, county, city, fire, state, federal was so overwhelming that they felt -- at least one gentleman I talked to felt very comfortable and secure that they had a depend handle on the situation. He's not worried about smoke, the controlled burn. He figures he's got this all figured out, and he's place placing, he's seeing no risk to his home or any problems from THIS burning of this house.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I just want to mentions once again, it's 1-888-895-5727 if you'd like to join the conversation. I want to ask you both, the authorities say that it is easy to detonate these explosives materials by, perhaps bumping into them or something of that nature, and that's apparently what a gardener did back in November to cause the authorities to become concerned about this house and start this whole case rolling. Professor Cooksy, what causes an explosive to go off simply by being bumped into.
ANDREW COOKSY: Well, in the case of the HMTD, that's an example of an organic peroxide, and what makes it so reactive is there's a very weak oxygen- oxygen bond that responds very quickly to any kind of agitation including high heat or [CHECK AUDIO] it's designed to go from a solid or a liquid into several molecules of gas that want to get away from each other very rapidly, often with a lot of energy being released. In the case of the hash measure TD, it's the very week oxygen oxygen bond that gets everything started.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And professor, have you ever heard of anything like this happening in civilian life? A residential home being burned by authorities because of the explosive materials inside.
ANDREW COOKSY: No, no, I haven't heard of that.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And ed, let me ask you, what are authorities saying about how unique a situation this is in Escondido.
ED JOYCE: Had, they have said that this amount -- this type of explosives, the amount and the vol, pounds of the chemical that we're talking about, the chemical compounds we're talking about is the most that they've found in a single location in the United States. Of so this is a one time event that's never happeneds.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Okay. Let's take some calls. . 1-888-895-5727 is the number to call. Albert is calling from La Jolla. Good morning, Albert, and welcome to These Days.
NEW SPEAKER: Hi, thanks for having me.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You're welcome.
NEW SPEAKER: So they mentioned that the suspect had described a book about mining, and [CHECK AUDIO] that he was developing of the is there any idea what his intentions were with those explosives? [CHECK AUDIO].
ED JOYCE: Prosecutors have not made that available to us yet. We're not sure what his intentions were. They have not provided that information. He has pleaded guilty to charges of making destructive devices. It's just a question of what he was going to do with those potentially or if he was just a -- I don't know if you could second call it a hobby, playing with chemicals so highly unstable and dangerous. But I guess we'll find out in the course of the legal proceedings.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Wasn't there some information, ed, about, one -- and one of the reasons that this is now in federal court, some allegations of a bank robbery.
ED JOYCE: Yes, she is charged -- he's alleged to have robbed at least three San Diego County banks. So he's accused on those charms as well.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Okay. Thank you. Let's go to Michael calling from San Marcos. Good morning, Michael. Welcome to These Days.
NEW SPEAKER: Hello, actually, thanks for taking my call. Actually I'm working right now, but my house is in San Marcos. What I'm most concerned about, [CHECK AUDIO] potential harm is there with this chemical cloud that's going to be disbursed from this burn?
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm gonna refer that to professor cookies,what's the risk?
ANDREW COOKSY: Well, I think the risk is similar to what you would have seen with the worst of the wild fires when, you know, the air becomes quite acrid, and potentially very irritating. I don't believe that there's any specific risk that's associated with the explosive compounds after they have been burned. They really do fall apart, they're pretty small and well understood molecules. Some of them toxic, but the ones that we're used to dealing with from fires of all types.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Privacy cookies, if you had a house in that neighborhood or near that neighborhood or if you were one of the neighbors of that house, what would your major concern be.
ANDREW COOKSY: Well, instinctively I'd be afraid of explosion, because these are difficult materials to handle. And this being house hold chemistry, there's no guarantee that the materials present are what was intended to be made. And so the sensitivity of these can be difficult to predict. The sheriff's office has made it cheer that they don't expect an explosion and that they've taken into account what they think is the worst case snare Joe and planned for that.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And they don't expect an explosion, but what precautions have they taken against an explosion.
ED JOYCE: Again, they've evacuated everybody around this house, so if there's any potential of anything like that happening, [CHECK AUDIO] they're gonna start this at a very hot -- it's a hot, fast bush, 1800 plus degrees, apparently, which they tell me will consume the hazardous materials within the first house. Then the next few hours, it's just nearly a structure fire that they're going to monitor, and the San Diego County air quality officials have said that the smoke and any ash from this home burning is minimal compared to recent wild fires in the county.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So just to be clear, they're expecting to watch this home burn to ashing basically.
ED JOYCE: That's correct.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That's interesting.
ED JOYCE: Then they'll take those ashes and sift through the debris, [CHECK AUDIO] then they'll start beginning the process of debris removal.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And professor Coksy, is that the best way to make sure that there's chemicals basically burn clean?
ANDREW COOKSY: Well, I believe so. The burning has the advantage that it's going to elevate the temperatures to where these molecules simply aren't able to hold together, and they're going to break down. And it seems to be one of the things they'll want to do is make sure that any place that the chemicals might have been got to those temperatures and that there's no complete explosive compounds remaining.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You know, we hear so much about various sites being cleared years after some toxic event took place. I'm gonna ask you, do you know if authorities, professor, are thinking about cleaning this site?
ANDREW COOKSY: As ed said, those ashes are gonna be taken away and forensically evaluated.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What would be the proper procedure of cleaning that site so there would be no residual chemical effect?
ANDREW COOKSY: Well, I'm not an expert in that area. I believe they do have to dig an area that is contaminated. Mostly what they'll be doing is taking samples and seeing what's present, and if toxins exceed certain levels, then they'll have to deal with it.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Then they'll have to go to a second phase of some kind. Ed, I heard your report this morning, and you were talking about the number of media outlets that are up in Escondido around this neighborhood. Tell us a lot bit about that.
ED JOYCE: Oh, you have at least, I would say well over 70 now different media reporters, news anchors from TV, radio, print outlets here from as far away maybe as Los Angeles, certainly represented here, network affiliates, network correspondents and producers. They're pretty well packed on the side street called nutmeg that leads down to the area to where the house is located. And we're all sort of watching and waiting for this to happen around 11:00 o'clock this morning, and if all goes according to plan, things work the way the San Diego County sheriff's diameter [CHECK AUDIO] the neighbor interstate 15, [CHECK AUDIO].
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let just try to squeeze in one more call. Judy is calling from Escondido. Good morning, Judy and welcome to These Days.
NEW SPEAKER: Hi, thank you for taking my call.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You're welcome new my my concern is, I live in Escondido, I'm about three miles away from the house. I understand that this person has concocted some chemical it is together to already make bombs and some of those compounds have been down, I'm not sure in what amount it is, have been known to travel as far as, just from my research, 5 to 6 miles away from the vicinity. And I understand they evacuated around the house, but how do they nod know [CHECK AUDIO] that it could cause a catastrophic event?
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Right, Judy, I think that's what so many people are keeping in the back of their minds about that. And we've talked with the professor about this, I see that you've told our screener that you didn't send your kids to school today because of this.
NEW SPEAKER: No.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Why not?
ED JOYCE: Huh-uh because I'm concerned. What I would lick to know, if this is such a dangerous situation that the bomb squad, they feel you cannot remove the chemicals because it could potentially explode inside the house, my question is, how do they not know that -- or why is the military involved? How come -- this is the only house with this concentrated amount of chemicals in this house, why isn't the military involved? Why isn't there more assurity? Why are we not assured?
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Right. Judy, thank you for the call. Let me get edto respond to this. Was there ever any idea of bringing in the military on this to see if they might help.
ED JOYCE: Not that I'm aware of. The FBI has been involved, county state and federal authorities have been involved. There are plenty of people who know their business and know their business and what's going on with this house, that are here and are involved in the process. And the county has set up croups with chemical detectors that will be within a half mile radius to check the toxins in the air as well. And as the professor has said in the San Diego County sheriff's department has told us, the fire will be so hot, it will vaporize these compounds. They will break down, as far as other materials that may be hidden somewhere in the house, we'll have to see when they burn the house whether there are some pops or bangs, but they do have chemical detectors, monitoring the air around where this house will be burned, and they're waiting for the ideal weather conditions to do so.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Well, Ed Joyce, you're the person for KPBS who's gonna be waiting and seeing on that. So we appreciate that, and we look forward to your coverage through the day.
ED JOYCE: Thank you Maureen.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And professor Cooksy, Andrew Cooksy, professor of physical chemistry at San Diego State University, thank you for joining us.
ANDREW COOKSY: Thank you.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And if you'd like to comment, please go to KPBS.org,/These Days. Coming an an investigative report takes a close look at San Diego's legal expenses. That's as these days continues here on KPBS.