Fireworks Outfit For Alton Show Has Accident In Indiana;
12 Hurt As Rockets Fly Into Crowd

St. Louis Post Dispatch Newspaper
Monday, July 7, 1997
By Virginia Baldwin Hick and Andy Kravetz
The Associated Press Contributed Information To This Story.
Fireworks Partners Inc., the company whose display exploded in a deadly barrage on the Alton riverfront Thursday, had another accident Friday night in Syracuse, Ind.

Three employees died in the Alton explosion. The bodies of two men were recovered from the Mississippi River Saturday.

The Syracuse explosion sent 12 people to the emergency room with superficial cuts and burns. All declined treatment except one 2-year-old boy. He was treated for facial injuries and released.

The Syracuse explosion involved a fireworks display on the ground, said Jerry Curry, a police and fire dispatcher there. The display exploded in its container, sending small rockets zooming into the crowd, he said. Scores of people suffered cuts from debris and flash burns.

The explosion caused some panic, Curry said. But the crowd settled down and the show continued. The crowd moved back 300 feet, the rest of the ground displays were scrapped, and the crew shot off the rest of the aerial display over Lake Syracuse.

The fireworks company, also known as Mad Bomber, put on a display the next night in Lake Wawasee, which adjoins Lake Syracuse. That display, like the one in Alton, was launched from barges on the water.

Fireworks accidents around the country have prompted some discussion on Internet news groups devoted to professional pyrotechnic displays.

One participant in the discussion, Harry Conover, worked 30 years in the fireworks business. He said manual launches off a barge were among the most dangerous in the business.

"The fact is, firing fireworks from occupied barges is inherently dangerous as in it always involves serious lethal risk to the firing crew," he wrote in an online discussion group Sunday afternoon.

"Realize that on a barge, there is no escape at the time of an accident except into the water, at night, often in an injured and/or stunned state," he said.

That was the experience of the five men working the Alton display Thursday night. They were launching fireworks manually from a barge when one shell fizzled close to the barge and dropped on deck, igniting the rest of the fireworks.

Conover said barge launches should be done remotely. That way, he said, if something goes wrong, people's lives aren't in immediate jeopardy.

Tim Spalding, assistant fire chief in Alton, agreed.

"A lot of pyrotechnic outfits fire everything electronically," Spalding said. "This particular organization, they were hand lighting some of it. That's one safety measure we'll be considering, requiring remote ignition."

Rick Cisneros, 45, died in the fire. Rafael Gonzalez suffered a sprained ankle when he was blown 15 feet. Carlos Alicea escaped to an adjoining barge. Ralph Kenneth Duty, 46, and Raymound Hernandez, 24, landed in the water and drowned.

All the men were from the Chicago area. Fireworks Partners is based in Crown Point, Ind., but its Mad Bomber subsidiary is based in Chicago. A woman answering the telephone in the Chicago office declined to comment.

The crew in Alton had been scheduled to put on a display in Charleston, Ill., Friday night, and had packed the fireworks for that display in the same truck used for the Alton show.

The Charleston show was delayed for a day, authorities there said. According to the Charleston Times-Courier, Steve Austin, a local pyrotechnician hired to do the display retrieved the truck Friday from Alton. The show did not involve barge launches.

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