Mix Stash of Potential Explosives w. Multi Family Dwelling, Toss Carefully

by Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff

Sometimes a story is so local it jumps up and bites you. Such is the case with the stash of potentially explosive materials found in an apartment building in the town where I live. Say hey for Delmar, New York.  It’s a mighty nice place. Delmar is a suburb of Albany. The kind of old leafy suburb extolled by folks who like old leafy suburbs. Not completely crime free, but certainly not Albany. So when a stockpile of HAZMAT materials turns up in the basement of a small tidy apartment complex in an old leafy neighborhood, eyebrows get raised. Particularly when there’s an ongoing back story…

First story first. On the afternoon of November 30th, police were summoned to the Cherry Arms apartment complex on Delaware Avenue in Delmar. A resident had spotted large amounts of what looked to be suspicious chemicals, plus some sort of weird device in the basement’s common storage area. Though a space where most people store boxes of old tchotchkes seems an odd place to keep acetone, xylene, nitric acid, sulfuric acid, butane, and gosh knows what else, there they were. Along with a commercial-grade vacuum chamber. A hefty item (some 400 pounds) that resembles a cross between an old fashioned safe and a commercial laundry extractor.

After the cops scoped the basement, the Albany County HAZMAT Team tossed it. Carefully. For safety’s sake tenants were told to vacate their apartments. Jason Sanchez, age 24, refused. He allegedly got way huffy. To the point where he had to be hauled from the scene. The bads in the basement allegedly belonged to Sanchez. A search warrant allegedly turned up more materials in his apartment. On December 1st, Jason Sanchez was charged with resisting arrest and first-degree reckless endangerment,

If stored in close proximity a number of the substances found in the Cherry Arms basement are potential explosives. Storage areas are generally full of fire food. The Cherry Arms is a multi family building. According to a tenant quoted on local ABC News 10 (Arrest made during Hazmat situation in Delmar) it contains 18 gas furnaces. (A comment posted in response to the story says there are no furnaces.) The building is closely surrounded by other residences and is catty-corner from a gas station. The convenience store right across the street is a popular hangout for students from the high school down the block.

Jason Sanchez is a grad student (computer science) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, across the Hudson River from Albany. So far, Sanchez isn’t saying what he was planning to do with the substances found in his basement and apartment. The Bethlehem police (the village of Delmar is in the township of Bethlehem) are investigating. Deputy Police Chief Timothy Beebe says Sanchez “had apparently been setting up some type of laboratory in there”*. Adding that the basement set-up didn’t seem to be intended as a home-on-the-range meth lab. Official focus seems to be on the possibility that booms were in the works.

Interesting but no doubt unrelated factoid: acetone, xylene, nitric acid, sulfuric acid, and butane (the identified substances found at the Cherry Arms) are what’s known as over-the-counter-solvents. Aka OTC Solvents. OTC Solvents can be used to process various drugs that aren’t meth. For instance, to extract THC from marijuana and produce stronger concentrates of high. Googling “OTC Solvents” brings up lots of how-to info on extraction, plus numerous warnings about handling and storing solvents.

Interesting but no doubt unrelated factoid about vacuum chambers: an 06/20/09 posting titled “Get All Your Cannabinoids” at marijuana.com sez “In laboratories when we need to remove solvents or by-products and our target compound is sensitive to heat, sometimes we use a vacuum chamber to remove solvents and byproducts..in the lab when we boil off compounds we don’t save what boils off, it gets whisked away by the vacuum pump. So the challenge is building a vacuum chamber vaporizer. How can this be designed? Does anyone have any ideas?..If this can be done we could produce true medical grade vaporizers. A vaporizer that is extremely efficient and gets all the cannabinoids.”

Speaking of cannabinoids, in late August the NY State police discovered a large scale marijuana farm operating out of a Delmar warehouse, at a Delaware Avenue address just a block or so south of the high school. The discovery was pure serendipity; the police were on the premises as part of an unrelated investigation. (The nature of which was never revealed.) Three farmers were busted. One pleaded guilty in October. When not tilling the soil, Yoeman Ray Marshall was snapping up rundown rental properties in downtown Albany. Buying dozens at open bid auctions run by Albany County.

But I digress. Back to the dangers of storing potential explosives in basements.

On December 19th, 2009, a fire destroyed a single family home at 151 Adams Place in Delmar, in a nabe within walking distance of the Cherry Arms. The fire started with an explosion in the basement caused by a collection of unidentified chemicals. As the fire tore through the house, smaller explosions went off. Neighbors were evacuated from nearby homes. The residents of 151 Adams? Jason Sanchez wasn’t at home that afternoon.  But his mother was, along with his 15 year old brother.

Jason’s mother was unharmed but his brother was in the basement when the initial explosion occurred. He lost several fingers and was severely burned. A local law enforcement officer stated he may have been handling the chemicals that touched off the explosion. Jason Sanchez’s brother spent several months in the hospital. Delmar is a public spirited place and schoolmates and family friends raised more than $20,000 to help the Sanchez family get back on their feet.

In late February 2010, Jason’s mother, a volunteer firefighter and EMT with the Delmar Fire Department, won the “Keep America Running Hometown Hero” award (a program sponsored by Dunkin’ Donuts) for using her emergency response training in pulling her 15 year old son out of the basement at 151 Adams.Two police officers had completed the rescue, moving the boy out of the house.

By March, the official investigation into the fire had come to “a little bit of a standstill”**. Mother Sanchez was refusing to be interviewed by the police. She also wouldn’t let them talk to Jason’s brother. The police did claim to know what chemicals had caused the explosion– but they weren’t releasing the info ’cause the investigation was ongoing. Almost a year after the explosion and resulting fire that burned 151 Adams Place to the ground, the investigation is still ongoing. Will the stash of potential explosives found in the basement of the multi-family Cherry Arms make the on-go move faster? Possibly. Though in old leafy suburbs, time moves more gracefully…

*’A grave risk of death‘, Stephanie Lee, Albany Times Union, 12/01/10

**Mother won’t talk about fire, Christen Gowan, Albany Times Union, 03/03/10

4 Comments »

  1. Chemist Said,

    December 7, 2010 @ 1:46 am

    Your insinuations that the materials were related to drugs are unfounded. The chemicals are, as you note, solvents.

    Acetone and nitric acid can be used for dissolving plastic used to protect integrated circuits. Xylene dissolves epoxies as well. Sulfuric acid can be used in etching circuits. Butane can be used for soldering irons.

    Could it be he’s a hobbyist electrical engineer? No, of course not. It’s not like his startup (http://www.drawersteak.com/?page=services) lists several related skills. He’s probably a drug dealer.

  2. Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff Said,

    December 7, 2010 @ 6:02 pm

    You’re certainly correct that there are legit purposes for the OTC Solvents found in the storage area in the basement of the Cherry Arms. And Jason Sanchez’s reasons for possessing them may be just as you suggest. However, public suspicion re the purpose of the materials has been aggravated by a number of factors. Such as the December, 2009 chemical-based explosion and fire at the Sanchez home that was never adequately explained and Jason Sanchez’s allegedly belligerent response to the HAZMAT inspection at the Cherry Arms on November 30th, 2010. Local speculation about meth production has been out there on community bulletin boards since the earlier fire. Police officials have expressed disbelief in that theory. After the discovery at the Cherry Arms, a top Bethlehem police official stated the possibility that bombs were being built. Personally, I don’t find that scenario believable. If any criminal intent or use existed, I find it more conceivable that something considerably more mundane was involved.

    Incidentally, whatever the purpose and use of the solvents, they don’t belong being kept and used in close proximity to each other (and butane torches) in a common storage area in the basement of a multi-family dwelling. For instance, OSHA says this about xylene: “The National Fire Protection Agency has assigned a flammability rating of 3 (severe fire hazard) to xylene…Flash point: 27 to 32 degrees C (81 to 90 degrees F)…Outside or detached storage is preferred; inside storage areas must be in a standard flammable liquids storage room or cabinet. The ventilation used in storage areas must be of explosion-proof design.” And “containers (should be) stored separately from strong oxidizers, heat, sparks, and open flame.”

    http://www.osha.gov/SLTC/healthguidelines/xylene/recognition.html

  3. Chemist Said,

    December 7, 2010 @ 8:46 pm

    Sanchez has commented publicly in the Albany Times Union today:

    http://www.timesunion.com/local/article/Chemicals-safe-suspect-says-865338.php#photo-6

    No OSHA guideline is being violated, as it does not have jurisdiction in the home, even apartment complexes. We can agree that there certainly may have been hazards, but we don’t know anything about the storage conditions other than they were stored in a basement. Did it reach 81 to 90 degrees F in the basement? We don’t know. How close was xylene stored to oxidizers? Despite your suggestion that they were stored “in close proximity,” you do not know this for a fact.

    The only true risk would be if Sanchez or another individual intentionally mixed the chemicals or exposed them to flame, but as the Times Union article reports, he seems to have a better understanding of the chemicals than to do this.

  4. Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff Said,

    December 8, 2010 @ 2:27 am

    Well Mister or Ms. Chemist, this is getting a tad nit picky. But I’ll go one more round. You reference the Times-Union article “Chemicals safe, suspect says”. According to that article, Jason Sanchez says he stored the solvents in a “2-foot-by-2-foot shelf”. I’d say that was close proximity. He also claimed the chemicals had been in the basement “since the summer”. Last summer the temperature often climbed past 80 degrees F. And though OSHA may not have jurisdiction over multi-family dwellings, OSHA warnings about storing (not only using) xylene reference the National Fire Protection Agency and are echoed by numerous other entities. Similar warnings can be found re the other materials being kept by Jason Sanchez in the common area storage room of the multi-family Cherry Arms.

Leave a Comment

%d bloggers like this: