The discovery of a “bomb factory” at a home in Escondido doesn’t mark the first time an explosive situation in San Diego County has made the national news.
Criminal and accidental explosions in the county have drawn wide attention for more than a century, while bomb scares panicked citizens and scarred reputations.
The most tragic explosion came on a July morning in 1905 when a Navy gunboat blew up in the harbor, killing 65 men. It was the Navy’s worst peacetime disaster up to that time.
The ship, the USS Bennington, was preparing to leave San Diego when catastrophe struck. The Journal of San Diego History picks up the story:
A volcano of superheated steam erupted through the deck amidships. The little ship shuddered violently, and a cloud of steam enveloped her…
Men tore their uniforms off in fits of frenzy and dove overboard to escape the murderous steam. Some injured themselves in the jump; others drowned before help could arrive. Sailors screamed and moaned piteously on the upper decks, the steady hiss of steam in their ears. A few men below decks scrambled to ladders, but many bluejackets were trapped in the various compartments.
An investigation found that a sailor in the boiler room had accidentally disabled a pressure gauge, allowing steam to fill a boiler until it exploded. The commander of the ship was seen leaving a downtown saloon after the explosion occurred and later was acquitted of wrongdoing at a court martial.
Some of the dead remain buried at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery in Point Loma, where an obelisk stands in their honor. Others were disinterred and transported back East after Congress agreed to pay the costs of sending them home.
The second most famous explosion in San Diego’s history came at the hands of a bomber who remains unknown more than two decades later.
On March 10, 1989, a van exploded near the intersection of Genesee Avenue and La Jolla Village Drive in University City as a woman drove it to work at La Jolla Country Day School. Sharon Rogers, the 50-year-old wife of the then-skipper of the Vincennes guided missile cruiser, wasn’t hurt.
“News of the explosion was transmitted almost instantly across the country, raising the horrifying specter of an international terrorist strike in the heart of a typical all-American city,” the U-T reported in a follow-up story in 1995. The case became the FBI’s top priority.
Initially, authorities suspected terrorists bombed the van in retaliation at the skipper, Capt. Will Rogers III, who had given the order to shoot down an Iranian civilian airliner in 1988. All 290 people aboard the airliner died; the downing of the plane turned out to be based on mistaken information.
Immediately after the bombing, Sharon Rogers became “an exile of sorts in her community,” Time magazine reported:
While she is free to come and go as she pleases from her temporary home at a San Diego naval base, she is under the constant eye of four bodyguards from the Naval Investigative Service. She is also reportedly wired for sound so that the security officers can listen in on all her conversations.
Worst of all, Rogers was made to feel like an outcast at the school where she taught for twelve years. … Many San Diegans, angered by the way Rogers was treated, accused the school of gross ingratitude and cowardice. Others argued that Rogers should stay away for the safety of the students.
Investigators eventually moved away from the terrorism theory toward suspicions that the bombing was a personal attack on the Navy captain. But no arrests were made, and the statute of limitations for the bombing passed in 1994.
Other explosions have made the news over the past decade:
• A pipe bomb exploded at the downtown federal courthouse in May 2008 early on a Sunday morning, causing damage but no injuries.
Several suspects were later charged, and three pleaded guilty. The alleged ringleader is the father of a convicted pimp whose own criminal case made the news locally. Prosecutors have not disclosed any motive for the bombing.
• Also in May 2008, a construction-related explosion at a Hilton hotel project in downtown injured 14 workers, five critically.
• In December 2003, a City Heights family learned the hard way that you don’t need 19 bug-bomb foggers to rid a 470-square-foot home of cockroaches. In fact, that’s 18 too many: one is more than enough.
No one was injured when the home exploded after a heater pilot light apparently lit the fumes from the foggers.
“We had so many cockroaches and rats inside. That’s why we did it,” a woman renting the house with her family told the U-T.
It wasn’t the first time this kind of thing had happened here. As the U-T reported, “In April 2001, 18 bug bombs and a pilot light in a heater combined to blow up a City Heights apartment. No one was injured, and several cockroaches survived the blast.”
• In 1986, someone put a sealed box in front of a Home Savings of America branch in the East County town of Ramona. Things did not end well for the box, its contents or the county bomb squad.
It was the very definition of a suspicious package, so the bomb squad came out to examine it. An X-ray showed that “there was a soft shape with bones,” the Associated Press reported, possibly a dangerous snake.
The county bomb squad blew up the package with a water cannon and then, to its horror, discovered what was inside: four kittens.
“When we blew up those kittens, it was one of the darkest moments in our history,” a bomb squad official told the North County Times in 2004. “We received hate calls from around the world. We still take cheap shots today.”
Three kittens died, but one survived. She was named Lucky and went home with a sheriff’s detective.
Publicists promoting a new movie by filmmaker Thomas Ince in 1924 sparked an uproar by bringing a fake bomb to the S.D. Union building. In a coincidence, Ince had died earlier that week. The hoax perpetrators are the three men grinning behind bars. San Diego Union microfilm archives, San Diego Central Library.
• Another unfounded bomb scare sent downtown San Diego into a panic back in 1924, as I wrote earlier this year in a story about the mysterious death of a filmmaker:
It was, as an infuriated San Diego Union put it the next day, “the most sensationally contemptible practical joke ever attempted here for publicity or any other purposes.”
By coincidence, filmmaker Thomas Ince’s newest movie — Dynamite Smith — was scheduled to open in San Diego the week after his 1924 death at the Plaza Theater. A trio of men working with the theater decided to make a splash by dropping a fake ticking dynamite bomb at The San Diego Union building.
The presence of the “infernal machine” sparked fear and panic, the Union reported. An older woman collapsed (“a woman’s life hangs in the balance today”), another fainted on the street, “and the lives of hundreds of occupants of The Union Building were jeopardized by the rush for safety.”…
It took an hour for the fire department to determine the bomb was fake, and the cops went to work. “Bomb Hoax Plotters Jailed,” screamed the Union headline the next day, Thursday, Nov. 20, the same day that news of the filmmaker’s death came out.
The Plaza Theater’s owners felt a bit wilted too. It promptly ran an apology ad in local papers for what it said was an unauthorized stunt and “foolish occurrence.”
The theater did take pains to note that the film in question — Dynamite Smith — “is among the cleanest and most human of pictures produced this year.” However, the theater said, its exhibition would be postponed.
Despite its explosive plot, the film is forgotten today.