St. Louis Post Dispatch Newspaper
6 July 1997
By Virginia Baldwin Hick
Ralph Kenneth Duty and Raymound Hernandez worked with dangerous explosives.

But it was a water-safety lapse - the failure to wear life vests - that may have contributed to their deaths in the Alton fireworks explosion Thursday night, authorities said.

Crews of two towboats spotted the bodies of Duty, 46, and Hernandez, 24, between the Clark Bridge and Alton Lock and Dam 26 early Saturday morning.

They were among five workers putting on the display when the explosion occurred. Two escaped. Carlos Alicea fled to an adjoining barge. Rafael Gonzalez sprained his ankle, slipped over the side of the burning barge and clung to it until he was rescued. A third co-worker, Rick Cisneros, 45, died in the fire.

Duty and Hernandez jumped or were flung into the water. The Madison County coroner's preliminary report Saturday indicated that Duty and Hernandez died of drowning.

"Working on the river is some added danger," said Tim Spalding, assistant chief of the Alton Fire Department.

"The five of them should have had life vests on. Without vests, any time on that river is risky business.
"When you're shooting pyrotechnics, over the water is not a bad place to do it," Spalding added. "But protective clothing and life vests might have saved a couple of them."

A member of the Alton Exposition Commission, which had arranged for the fireworks, offered all the men life vests but they declined to wear them, authorities said.

"The answer, I found out, was they said they were in the way. They cut down on maneuverability," said James Hernandez, chairman of the Exposition Commission. He is no relation to Raymound Hernandez.

The barges were 120 yards off the Alton riverfront at 9:37 p.m. Thursday, about to launch the finale. A mortar shell that should have risen 100 feet fizzled only six feet above the barge and fell, smoking and blazing with sparks, back onto the deck. It ignited the rest of the fireworks in a huge explosion.

Duty shouted a warning just before the explosion, the survivors said.

The river there is about 50 feet deep. Authorities speculated that Duty and Hernandez may have been knocked unconscious - perhaps by the blast or by the impact - and sank almost immediately.

"They weren't on the surface any length of time," said Terry Miller, shift leader at the lock and dam.

"As quickly as the boats were out there, as many boats as there were, if they'd been on the surface for minutes, somebody would have been there."

Miller was in charge at the lock and dam when the bodies were discovered Saturday.

Around 4:30 a.m., a barge, the S.R. Chicago, entered the lock to be let down slowly to the water level downriver. Crew members spotted Duty's body, which had apparently been briefly caught underneath the barge.

The Alton Volunteer Emergency Corps was called to retrieve the body.

About 6:30 a.m., the captain of another barge, the Senator Dixon, radioed that he spotted a body - which turned out to be that of Hernandez - in the water downriver from the Clark Bridge.

The Senator Dixon had cleared the locks and was going upriver. The barge cut its engines and floated down with the body, keeping it in sight until the emergency team could reach it.

Family members identified the bodies later in the morning.

This was the second year that the company, Fireworks Partners Inc., had presented the Alton display, said Hernandez, the Exposition Commission chairman.

"They're a very reliable company," he said. "They do displays all over the country."

Fireworks Partners is based in Crown Point, Ind. The crew who did the Alton display worked for a Chicago subsidiary called Madbombers.

They had been scheduled to do another display in central Illinois Friday and left a truck full of fireworks near where they boarded the barge. Workers from Fireworks Partners picked up the truck Friday.

Four of the men - Duty, Hernandez, Gonzalez and Alicea - were from Chicago. Cisneros lived in Markham, Ill., a Chicago suburb.

Hernandez will be buried in Chicago, with details arranged by the Sacred Heart Funeral Home there. No information was available Saturday on arrangements for the other victims.

Alton Mayor Don Sandidge said the city would look into what safety requirements govern fireworks handling on water.

"We want to make sure all those are followed in the future," Sandidge said.

He added that the city might consider enacting some of its own.

Copyright © 1997 Post Dispatch and Pulitzer Technologies Inc.

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