Suddenly, the room went white. A thunderous explosion blew out the windows as two interior walls buckled. Cortes and Belize ran through the open front door, their bodies covered in burns.
Justin Washington, a 17-year-old junior at St. Petersburg High, was in a house next door. "It was a very loud boom," Washington recalls. "It sounded like a car's gas tank exploded."
A few minutes later, two fire trucks and a team of firefighters in hazmat suits rushed through the narrow alley as smoke billowed from the doorway. While paramedics tended to Cortes and Belize, who sustained first- and second-degree burns on their arms, legs, and upper torsos, St. Petersburg deputy fire marshal Lt. Joel Granata found no evidence of a fire.
A 20-year fire veteran and arson investigator with a granite chin and blue eyes, Granata says the 360-square-foot apartment looked like someone had detonated a concussion bomb. "We focused on the kitchen," he recalls. "The top of the stove had been blown off, and the burners were in disarray. There was also a big hole in the ceiling right above the stove."
Initially, no one talked. "None of them were telling us the truth," Granata says. "I found some marijuana buds inside a mug next to the stove. I then found empty cans of butane in the garbage and on the floor."
This has got to be drug-related, Granata thought. Soon, Belize's girlfriend cracked. "She told us they were watching a video on YouTube on how to make hashish oil," he says. "We found a glass extractor and other empty cans in a nearby dumpster. All the pieces of the puzzle fell into place."
Cortes and Belize, who have been criminally charged with manufacturing hash oil, could not be located for comment. Their catastrophic attempt was the first documented BHO explosion in Florida.
The incident highlights a problem that's spreading across the country. As BHO use has increased in the United States, so has the number of reckless manufacturers. Since January, at least a dozen explosions have been reported in California, Michigan, Oregon, and Oklahoma. In February, the Federal Emergency Management Agency issued an alert about the dangers of BHO. "Butane is highly explosive, colorless, odorless, and heavier than air and therefore can travel along the floor until it encounters an ignition source," the warning declared. "Initial explosions can lead to secondary explosions and fires. In states with legalized use and availability of medical marijuana, these incidents appear to be increasing."
Amy Roderick, a spokesperson for the San Diego office of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, says there have been six BHO explosions in the city since November 2012. One of the worst cases occurred this past January 30, when a 22-year-old lit a cigarette in a guest room at the Heritage Inn Sea World, where he was allegedly extracting hash oil. According to one witness, the building shook violently and then there was a loud explosion. The BHO cook was transported to a nearby hospital in critical condition. Two other people in the room were also injured.
Roderick says the second-floor hotel room resembled a war zone. "The damage was pretty bad," she recounts. "The kitchen looked like someone threw a grenade in there."
The suspect survived and has been charged with manufacturing hash. Even though medical marijuana has been legal in California since 1996, the state's medical cannabis laws do not allow the manufacturing of hash oil. "It's considered much like a meth lab," Roderick says, "because they are using chemicals."
Frank Lyga, a Los Angeles Police Department detective, encountered his first BHO operation five years ago. "I went to a location where I found bags of cultivated marijuana that had been ground up," he says. "There were 1,000 butane cans in the backyard. The house was being used to manufacture honey oil."
Since then, Lyga has investigated 40 BHO labs, including 11 that have exploded. In one incident, a man was blasting inside the lavatory of a motel room. "The individual was using just one can of butane," Lyga says. "The door flew about 85 feet, and the windows blew out. He suffered severe burns on his face, hands, arms, and chest."
In another recent case, three people making hash oil became engulfed in flames from a spark. "Two have recovered and gone to rehab for burns on 90 percent of their bodies," Lyga says. "The third person is still in an induced coma."
In San Diego, DEA agents find BHO labs at 75 percent of the grow operations the agency shuts down."This is the new drug trend," Roderick says. "If someone is growing marijuana indoors or outdoors, we are finding they are also extracting hash oil."
Some people are just stupid, she adds. "In the Sea World case, you had a guy sitting in there extracting for four, five hours," Roderick says. "He had about 12 cases of butane in there. He told everyone at the scene he lit a cigarette."