Tzu Chi Volunteers Provide Love and Relief After the Ontario Explosion

National Headquarters  |  April 30, 2021
Volunteers Curtis Hsing and Suchen Huang arrive at a hotel where evacuees are staying after the explosion in Ontario, CA. Photo/James Huang

Written by Renee Chao, Jennifer Chien
Translated by Diana Chang
Edited by Adriana DiBenedetto

On March 16th, 2021, a powerful fireworks explosion in Ontario, California, shook the local community and sparked a sudden blaze — the blast tragically taking two lives and damaging dozens of homes within the explosion’s radius. Debris rained down on residents, and evacuations were ordered for at least three streets in the neighborhood. Soon after, Tzu Chi USA’s National Headquarters launched an emergency relief operation, and began to issue cash aid on March 25th to individuals affected by the explosion. As of March 30th, a total of $9,000 in emergency relief funds were distributed.

Immediate Mobilization

After the explosion occurred in the residential area on the 16th, multiple police and fire units responded and sealed off the area, as well as the adjacent highway interchange. The fire caused by the explosion had scorched multiple nearby homes, and the sound of explosions continued intermittently until dusk. The fire was indeed violent, and despite the best efforts of the brave responders, could not be completely extinguished until the following day.

Volunteers were immediately mobilized to the temporary care and reception center set by the city that evening. The City of San Bernardino’s Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) and the American Red Cross held a meeting to discuss emergency plans together as well.

Tzu Chi volunteers arrive at the scene of the Ontario explosion to assess the situation. Photo/Curtis Hsing
On the night of the explosion, Tzu Chi visits a temporary care center in Ontario. Photo/Curtis Hsing

As the COVID-19 pandemic is still ongoing, all personnel entering the care center are required to wear masks. As the care center can only provide a limited amount of bottled water and snacks, however, most families had preferred to stay with family or friends after registering their information. By 9 PM that day, 12 families had completed registration, and the American Red Cross provided assistance via hotel accommodations. The Charity Department at Tzu Chi USA’s National Headquarters continued to keep in touch with the American Red Cross’s emergency response team, and learned that as of the evening of the 24th, 16 families and approximately 60 residents were temporarily living in three hotels that provide three meals per day through the American Red Cross.

Issuance Of Cash Card As Urgent Aid

On March 25th, Tzu Chi volunteers visit the hotel where evacuees are temporarily staying to offer their support. Photo/James Huang
After volunteers verify the information provided, a cash card is issued on-site. Photo/James Huang

On March 25th, Tzu Chi volunteers arrived at the hotel where the affected families were staying to offer their care and support, and issued cash cards to those in need of relief. Volunteers also surveyed the scene of the explosion, which sustained tremendous damage, and gained a better understanding of the damages to the surrounding homes.

A Tzu Chi volunteer named Curtis Hsing, who is in charge of this operation, explained that as of March 26th, there were 16 households evacuated in the nearby neighborhood to the hotel for about 10 to 12 days through the American Red Cross. “We are at the hotel today and initially offered our assistance to nine households,” he said. “And we will go to the explosion site to conduct an assessment. We saw families returned to the scene to gather their remaining belongings.”

Volunteers visited the homes where the explosion occurred and saw that the house had been completely destroyed. Photo/James Huang
The severely damaged buildings nearby have all been marked with bright red warning signs prohibiting entry. Photo/James Huang

The explosion site was located in a quiet residential area. Curtis Hsing stated that after contacting the affected residents, he learned that about 80% of the families living nearby are renters, and some households consist of seven or eight family members. The homes have two to three rooms, and the predominantly low-income families already face multiple barriers to making ends meet. When the explosion occurred, the residents were at work, and although they have been evacuated from their homes, most are still working.

“I have seen so many disaster sites, but I never realized that an explosion can cause such a serious scene,” a Tzu Chi volunteer named Suchen Huang expressed at the site of the accident. “We come here with love from around the world to express our care. These items are love from Tzu Chi volunteers, including the Spanish Journal, masks, eco-scarves, and cash cards to aid the families’ urgent needs. Tzu Chi volunteers provided emergency relief funds on the spot according to the number of households and financial conditions of each household, and each household will receive $600 to $1,000 cash cards.”

Volunteers visit the neighborhood where the incident occurred and speak with residents as they comb through their belongings. Photo/James Huang
Tzu Chi volunteer Suchen Huang introduces Tzu Chi's mission. Photo/James Huang

Tzu Chi Volunteers In Action

The issuance of emergency relief funds is only the first phase of compassion in action. After obtaining the information from the affected households, Tzu Chi USA's National Headquarters will thoroughly assess the situation of each family and consider the planning of rental subsidies or other assistance programs, hoping to help families resume their normal lives as soon as possible.

Upon witnessing Tzu Chi volunteers delivering the essential supplies and caring for evacuees at the hotel each day, a resident named Johanna Fierro was so moved that she personally reached out to speak with the volunteers.

“Our family lives next door to the house where the explosion occurred and our house was severely damaged,” she said. “It has been red-flagged by the City to prohibit entry and we can no longer live there. All we owned exploded and was destroyed by the fire. Fortunately, our whole family evacuated safely.”

After the explosion, the windows of multiple nearby buildings shattered. Photo/James Huang
Tzu Chi volunteers listen intently as locals speak about their experiences, and learn that multiple households rent one single-family home to save on expenses. Photo/James Huang

“It is illegal to make fireworks in California,” said another resident, Marcus Daley. “This time, we have all suffered from the incident. This was a very unfortunate and unpredictable accident. No one knows that such an incident will happen in a residential area. We are fortunate that our families are safe, and hope that such terrible accidents will never happen again.”

Disasters strike without warning and turn lives upside down. The shock and distress of such tragedies weigh heavy on the hearts of all those affected. In these heartbreaking moments, Tzu Chi strives to be there with love, care, and direct relief.

Residents recount the startling moment when they witnessed the explosion. Photo/James Huang

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