1997 Fireworks Barge Accidents Falmouth MA and Alton IL

Cape Cod Times
5 July 1997
by Susan Milton

Falmouth fireworks barge erupts

Thousands witness explosions that send workers diving into ocean; minor injuries reported.

FALMOUTH - Falmouth's $25,000 fireworks display exploded prematurely last night, searing four pyrotechnicians and scaring about 30,000 onlookers who were watching the display off Falmouth Heights.

``We saw all the fireworks explode instantly,'' said Commodore Jim DiCostanzo of the Falmouth Yacht Club, watching the display and then the rescue from the club's deck. ``It was only 15 minutes into the program, and it looked like the grand finale. Then we could see the flames, rising from the barge.''

Despite early reports of severe burn victims, nobody was seriously injured among the 10 employees of Atlas Pyrotechnic of Jaffrey, N.H., on the barge, according to Lt. Shannan Brown of Coast Guard Group Woods Hole.

When the fire started, they jumped into the water, where they were rescued by Coast Guard tugs and other boats and ferried to the Tides Motel bulkhead, according to Lt. Michael Small of the Falmouth Fire Department.

Then relieved rescuers discovered that early reports of several severe burn victims were wrong. Four people were taken to Falmouth Hospital with minor to moderate burns, Small said. Five were treated at the scene for minor injuries. Two helicopters from Boston, called to the scene, were recalled.

Only one employee, with second and third degree burns, was sent to a burn unit at a Boston hospital, according to a nursing supervisor at Falmouth Hospital. One was held overnight for observation at Falmouth Hospital. Two others were being released after treatment, she said.

No identities of the injured employees were available last night.

The state fire marshal's office was being called in to investigate the explosion, Small said. The fire on the barge was extinguished within half an hour, and the barge was towed out to sea. The same company has shot off fireworks in Falmouth for the past several years.

According to a barge worker's relative, one of the fireworks went off sideways, got stuck under a tarp and started the fire. That's when a lot of people jumped off the barge, he said at the Falmouth emergency room last night.

Ambulances and rescue vehicles from the Upper Cape poured into Falmouth Harbor to pick up expected burned victims and to cover rescue operations in neighboring towns.

For the thousands of people on shore, ``It was a scary situation,'' said DiCostanzo. ``People got very upset and nervous, and emergency vehicles, without lights, started arriving among the pedestrians.'

On Thursday, a misfired shell lit up all the fireworks at a celebration in Alton, Ill., killing one worker and leaving two presumed dead.

The misfire exploded dozens of other shells, which went off in a cascade of colors. Onlookers thinking they were seeing the display's grand finale - cheered enthusiastically.

Contributing writer Kim Fernandes and 
Falmouth Bureau Chief Jeffrey Burt contributed to this report.
Copyright 1997 Cape Cod Times. All rights reserved.

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