Wednesday, July 9, 1997

Section: NEWS


By Jenny Price And Andy Kravetz
Of The Post-Dispatch Staff

The city of Alton will continue its Fourth of July fireworks display but is looking for ways to make it safer, officials said Tuesday.

Mayor Don Sandidge met Tuesday with other city officials about the fireworks.

Thursday night, a faulty shell caused an explosion. Three men working on the fireworks barge in the Mississippi River were killed. One was killed by the blast; two drowned.

After Tuesday's meeting, Donald Hayes, commissioner of the Alton Exposition Commission, said: "There's no question in my mind that the fireworks will go on."

The commission sponsors the fireworks display.

Sandidge says he wants fewer workers out on the water and more electronic firing of rockets. The shell that is believed to have caused the explosion on the barge was lit manually.

Meanwhile, the president of the company that put on the display defended the company and said it had taken all necessary safety precautions.

Andrew James, president of Mad Bomber Fireworks Productions of Crown Point, Ind., said: "We stand by our safety record and say that we have utmost respect of our customers and fire officials we work with."

James said he was concerned about the type of barge supplied for the display.

He said his company asked for a flattop barge, preferred by pyrotechnicians because it has more room.

Instead, the crew of six was supplied with a sand barge, which has retaining walls and requires that the shell and mortar racks be placed closer together.

James likened it to working in a plowed field with a fence around it.

Hayes, of Alton Expo, said the barge and towboat were rented from a Granite City company.

Hayes said that any fireworks company that Alton Expo hires in the future will have to agree to more safety requirements. One of those could be electronic firing, he said, depending on whether the City Council enacted an ordinance requiring electronic firing.

Mad Bomber has put on four straight fireworks shows in Alton - two for Alton Expo and two for the city of Alton. It was paid $20,000 for last week's show.

Hayes declined to say whether Mad Bomber would be rehired. "I'm sure we would look at other fireworks companies," he said. Electronic Alternative

An electronically fired show uses one mortar tube for each shell. The shells are then launched with a mild electric current.

One advantage of an electronically fired show is that the workers don't have to be directly in contact with the mortars.

Lisa Bertolini, vice president of Sunset Fireworks of St. Louis, said of the Alton show: "On a show as large as that, anything on the water is shot electrically or not at all, period. In our shows, we would have been in the safety barge."

Her company has done the Fair Saint Louis fireworks shows in the past.

James, of Mad Bomber, said several of his competitors have done manually launched barge shoots and not had an accident. During the past weekend, he said, Mad Bomber put on more than 100 shows with only two accidents - in Alton on Thursday night and in Syracuse, Ind., on Friday night.

The crew of five was not wearing life vests, and that is against Mad Bomber's policy, James said. He said the crew had used life vests previously and either didn't get them or weren't offered them. He disputed initial reports that the men refused to use the vests.

Hayes said life jackets were available 6 miles downriver from Alton at Mike's Landing in Hartford, where workers loaded the barge with shells.

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