St. Louis Post Dispatch Newspaper
4 July 1997
By Donald E. Franklin
and Colleen Carroll
One man was killed and two people were missing after a fireworks display blew up Thursday night during a Fourth of July celebration on the Mississippi River at Alton.

Severe weather, including heavy rain and lightning, was delaying rescue efforts early today.

The victim was one of five men aboard the barge when the fireworks exploded. All five worked for the company that was putting on the display, The Mad Bomber, based in the Chicago area, authorities said.

Alton Fire Chief Don Dugan said: "They say, `Leave it to the professionals.' We did leave it to the professionals, but something went wrong."

The man's body was found after the fire was extinguished, a spokesman for the Coast Guard said. The man's name was unavailable.

Another man on the barge was treated for an ankle injury at St. Anthony's Hospital in Alton. The man, Rafael Gonzalez, 32, of Chicago, was expected to released later today.

Lt. Kevin Lopes of the Coast Guard said the fireworks exploded about 9:30 p.m. near the finale of the show that was attended by thousands of spectators from the St. Louis area.

The Coast Guard closed the river near Alton so police, fire and rescue workers could search for the missing men.

Lopes said the Coast Guard had one patrol boat and six auxiliary vessels at the scene late Thursday.

Peggy Tavernier of Alton said she was on the Alton Belle Casino when the explosion occurred.

"They were lighting all the fireworks by hand," Tavernier said. "One man was thrown from the boat by the explosion."

Tavernier said the fireworks were launched from two barges about 100 yards from the Alton Belle when the barges caught fire.

"There was a fireball," she said. "The center looked to be white-hot." Some spectators thought the fireball was part of the fireworks show.

"People were cheering," she said. "They thought it looked really great."

The cheering stopped when the fireworks fell into the water and flames rose from the front barge, she said.

The tugboat attached to the barges pushed the burning barges upstream to where the Fire Department could get water on the flames, she said.

Tavernier, an emergency room nurse, then left the Alton Belle to assist the victims. She said none of the spectators on the Alton Belle or the river bank was injured.

The Coast Guard will investigate the explosion, officials said.

Copyright © 1997 Post Dispatch and Pulitzer Technologies Inc.

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