Fireworks accidents spark debate over dazzling displays

Thursday , March 06, 2014 - 12:52 PM

Tom Kisken

If Rob Mongiello could cast a vote, the skies over his home in Simi Valley, Calif., would be filled only with stars on the night of July 4, 2014.

On the night of the Fourth of July this year, Mongiello’s wife and daughter were part of a crowd of 8,000 people waiting for a fireworks show in a park near their home. A fireworks launching station that apparently fell over was shooting shells sideways -- toward the crowd. At least 37 people were injured.

A plug of wood shot like a cannon blast tore a hole in the Mongiellos’ cedar fence. Spot fires blazed in their yard.

So ask Mongiello, 59, about whether fireworks should sparkle and boom a year from now in the park.

‘‘No. No. No,” he said, arguing that the fireworks display at least needs to be better contained. “They got lucky.”

At least one leader of an organization sponsoring fireworks in Ventura County won’t address the question of whether the Fourth of July misfires and injuries will affect next year’s shows. Others say it’s too early, adding discussions haven’t started yet. Their focus remains on the people who were injured.

‘‘That is 350-some odd days away. We haven’t even begun to talk about that stuff yet,” said John Lindsey, president of the Rotary Club of Simi Valley. The club puts on the festival and fireworks show to raise money for nonprofit groups.

A moment later, Lindsey said it’s not guaranteed the fireworks show will come back.

‘‘It’s just premature. It’s not necessarily a given,” he said, referring to the efforts led by state fire marshals to determine exactly why fireworks shot into the crowd. “Much of it depends on the investigation.”

A representative of the American Pyrotechnics Association said the Simi incident is igniting discussion of whether existing practices need to change. Guy Colonna of the National Fire Protection Association said a committee from his group likely will review details of the Simi accident and make recommendations on issues, including whether the risk of fireworks shooting sideways means people should be kept farther away.

‘‘I think everyone will take a look at how close people will be to the fireworks,” said Karen Lindsey, an administrator with the Conejo Recreation and Park District, which sponsors an annual fireworks show with the city of Thousand Oaks.

‘‘There’s always a risk,” she said. “What you’re looking to do is minimize your risk and do everything you can to make it as safe as possible.”

There’s little data on the safety of public fireworks shows. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics tracks injuries of pyrotechnicians and other employees involved with conducting fireworks shows. In 2011, the most recent year available, 25 were injured nationwide. Five died.

Julie Heckman, executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association, said one reason there’s little data is because there are few incidents.

‘‘When we saw the coverage of Simi Valley, I had to think back to when was the last time we experienced something like that,” she said, referring to a 2008 show in Charles City, Iowa, where 37 people were injured, and an Aurora, Colo., incident four years earlier that left at least 12 people hurt.

Lindsey, the park district official, argued that eliminating fireworks shows increases the risk of injury by pushing people to set off their own fireworks.

Few people want public fireworks shows ended. Many argue for re-evaluating the displays and making sure they are as safe as possible. But they also want to preserve tradition and events that bring communities together.

Thousands of people go to the Simi Valley event every year because they love it, said Tony Orht, a Simi Valley banker who was there on the Fourth.

‘‘More people were hurt on the freeways that day,” he said. “We don’t stop driving.”

(Contact reporter Tom Kisken of the Ventura County Star in California at Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

Sign up for e-mail news updates.