Fire officials say an explosion and house fire Sunday afternoon in Centreville were caused by a man with a penchant for fireworks — plus 5,000 pounds of explosives.
NOT ONLY did it lead to the evacuation of five families — including his own — but it kept them away the next day, too, while county and federal bomb experts removed further explosives from his home at 13513 Portage Place in the Hawthorne Forest community.
According to Capt. Michael “Chris” Schaff, with the county Fire Chief’s Office, as of Monday at 12:45 p.m., “They’ve removed approximately 200 pounds of explosive devices, plus 500 pounds of raw material that could be used for making further explosives.”
By Tuesday morning, that total had skyrocketed to 5,000 pounds. "It was chemicals, fertilizer, powders and components — such as fuses — used to detonate and set off fireworks or pyrotechnics," said Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department spokesman Dan Schmidt.
Schaff identified the homeowner as Michael Baglini, 46, and said the Centreville man was working in his garage when the blast occurred. Explained Schaff: “He was grinding metal on a grinding wheel when a spark flew up and ignited a box of explosive products nearby.”
SCHMIDT SAID explosive-making components were found in Baglini's home, garage and shed. Fire officials even discovered explosives components in a concealed space that Baglini had built between his garage and the floor above.
It's illegal to possess, use and manufacture explosive devices and, said Schmidt, "There are charges pending" against Baglini, but he declined to speculate on what they might be. Baglini could be charged federally, as well.
Still, Schmidt stressed, "This was not criminal in the sense of someone wanting to do harm to people; it was an accident. However, what he was doing is not something that's endorsed."
Schaff didn’t know the specific types of components that had been found and removed from Baglini’s home, but said authorities are compiling a list.
“They’re categorizing it all right now, and it’ll probably take a couple days,” he said. “The Fairfax County Hazardous Materials Response Team; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms; and Fairfax County Police Department’s Explosive Ordnance Team are all working to assist the Fire Marshal’s office.”
Schmidt said several different kinds of powders were found, including black powder. "On the surface, it does seem a little scary," he said. "Why would the average person have black powder, except to make pyrotechnics?"
Schaff said a 911 call came in from a neighbor, Sunday around 12:35 p.m., about “an explosion in a house,” and firefighters from Station 17 in Centreville were the first on the scene, followed quickly by the Hazmat Unit from Station 40 in Fairfax. Said Schaff: “They found fire in the garage, extending to the attic above it.”
Caroline Collantes, who’s lived in the community since it was built 12 years ago — and has known Baglini the whole time — described him as “a nice, smart man with a lot of hobbies. I know he didn’t mean [for any of this to happen].”
SHE LIVES right next door and was home at the time. “It was a loud explosion,” she said. “I thought a big, pine tree had fallen. Then smoke came across my kitchen window and, when I went outside, their garage was on fire. I thought [Baglini] had it contained, and then the flames wouldn’t go away, so I called 911.”
As for her reaction to the fire, Collantes said, “Oh, my God. We all knew he made homemade fireworks, but not to this extent.”
Neighbor Emily Gross, who lives three houses away from Baglini and his family — a wife and three children, including a daughter, 14, son, 16, and college-age child home for the summer — said her family heard “a very loud pop.” Then, said her son Jeremy, 10, “We went outside and there was smoke pouring out of [the Baglinis’] garage.”
Gross said she and her family were getting ready to go to the pool but, once fire and rescue personnel began arriving, their street was blocked and they were unable to get their car out to leave.
Monday, the scene was the same, with county and federal firefighters and bomb experts lining Portage Place and nearby Highbourne Lane with their vehicles — including two, mobile labs where police and fire investigators processed evidence. The entrance to Portage was closed off with yellow tape to keep residents and others — including several TV news crews — away while more explosives were removed from Baglini’s property.
“It’s a mess,” said Collantes, whose family was one of those evacuated. “They told me we could come back today at 1 p.m., so I went grocery shopping.” Instead, however, she returned to find her neighborhood teeming with men in uniform and the yellow tape still in place.
With milk and other refrigerated items in her trunk, she said, “Not being able to get into my house is getting annoying.”
FINALLY, officials let her park her car at the far end of the street and lug her groceries uphill to her home.
Schaff said the blast displaced the Baglinis, plus neighbors in the homes immediately next to theirs, and in two homes behind them on Northbourne Drive. He said the loss to the Baglinis’ home is estimated at $250,000 and their home is valued at around $715,000. He also noted that only their home sustained smoke and water damage.
When firefighters first arrived, Baglini was standing outside, trying to quell the flames with a garden hose, to no avail. Then the professionals took over.
“They started attacking the fire from inside,” said Schaff. “But once they were aware of the explosives in there, they had to go to an exterior attack. They fought it from the outside with master streams off the ladder truck and hand lines off the other trucks.”
Because they had to battle the blaze that way, he said, it took approximately three hours to bring it under control. “They confined it to the garage and attic, so they did a good job of containment,” said Schaff. “It stayed at a single alarm, with specialty units supplementing.”
Besides Stations 17 and 40, fire and rescue personnel also came from the Chantilly, Fair Oaks and Fairview stations. Altogether, some 80-90 people responded from nine, different engine companies – bringing with them two fire trucks, three EMS (emergency medical services) units, the HAZMAT response team and representatives from the Fire Marshal’s Office.
“There was concern for further explosions during the attack and removal of the explosives,” said Schaff on Monday. “That’s why we have the EOD [Explosive Ordnance Disposal] Team — the Fairfax County Police Department’s Bomb Squad — here.”
NEIGHBORS Brittney Rhodes and Katy Kinsey, both 15-year-old sophomores at Chantilly High, were home Sunday, preparing to hang out together, when the explosion occurred. “All my neighbors ran outside,” said Kinsey.
“We heard the boom and didn’t know what it was,” added Rhodes, who lives behind the Baglinis, on Northbourne Drive. “You could see the smoke from my house.”
She and others said Baglini "put on [fireworks] shows every Fourth of July, until two years ago." But according to fire officials, he used commercial, and not homemade, fireworks in those displays.
On Sunday, said Rhodes, "I was really scared for my friends in this area, and there's a lot of woods [that could have caught on fire]." And, said Kinsey, "If the fire spread, it could have exploded more, so we were worried."
Neighbor Emily Gross, who's lived on Portage Place for five years, said "everybody knew" about Baglini's fireworks hobby. So, after the blast, "I e-mailed my friends and sister. I wrote, 'We had a fire in our neighborhood. Want to guess what happened?' They all replied, 'Was it the guy with the fireworks?'"