By John Toole
---- — PELHAM — A preliminary New Hampshire fire marshal’s report concludes last summer’s fireworks explosion that injured 13 was accidental.
“No criminal intent is suspected in this incident,” the preliminary report said. “In the absence of any new information forthcoming, this fireworks related explosion and subsequent fire shall be classified as ‘accidental’ and this report shall stand as final.”
The House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee received the report during a hearing on House Bill 336, which would prohibit the retail sale of some fireworks.
The panel also received first-hand victim accounts of the horror and chaos from the night of July 3 at the Dodge Road home of the Chris Pappathan family.
Pappathan’s daughter, Jessica Pappathan Bertini, recalled being separated from her son, Ben, who was badly burned.
“He was screaming for me and was terrified. I will never forget that image,” Bertini said. “He had what I kept describing as a hole under his arm, another near his wrist and his foot was mangled.”
Pappathan’s niece was there, too.
“As the firework landed on the pile I felt instant fear. One went off. Then they all went off,” Marci Foy of Greenfield recalled in a statement to the fire marshal provided the committee. “I threw up my arms over my face and ran down the stairs as the fireworks pierced my skin, screaming for my baby (Olivia).”
Pappathan had hosted a fireworks show for friends and neighbors for years and was surprised by the disaster.
“I was shocked by how rapidly the mortar shells on my deck exploded,” Pappathan said. “As I mentioned to the fire marshal, it was as if the shells were coated with gasoline and gunpowder.”
The preliminary report said the explosion originated on the rear deck of the home.
“The scene inspection was able to determine that there were approximately 344 reloadable mortar shells or effects stored on the deck prior to the explosion,” the report said.
Investigators said last summer they removed more than 90 boxes of fireworks from the home. The report detailed nine contributing factors to the explosion.
The investigation found reloadable mortar shells were unpackaged and stored openly, in close proximity to the eight adults and five children injured.
“The majority of the people injured as a result of this fireworks explosion were located in the open deck area which is only approximately 14 feet long by 14 feet wide,” the report said.
The shells and fuses, once removed from packaging, “can be compromised with little effort,” it said.
The report was critical of the fireworks kits for lacking information about properly handling or storing shells once removed from packaging.
The investigation found this was only the second time the family had used the reloadable shells, but it was the first time they had stored them this way.
The report pointed to the critical moment.
“It was deterimined that a firework was ignited off the rear deck stairwell railing just prior to the explosion. It is unknown what the firework device actually was, but multiple witnesses describe a ‘spinner’ type firework, being ignited off the rear of the deck,” the report said. “The unidentified firework then flew over the deck, landing in the pile of reloadable mortar shells/effects stored on the deck.”
Retail ban may result
Spinner devices don’t always have a controlled flight and can emit a shower of sparks, the fire marshal noted.
Rep. Charlene Takesian, R-Pelham, and Sen. Chuck Morse, R-Salem, who represents Pelham, are sponsors of the bill.
The Takesian-Morse bill would ban reloadable shells, spinners, helicopters and parachutes, plus put new requirements on retailers to provide safety information about legal fireworks.
Rep. Robert Fesh, R-Derry, a member of the committee, said there was a huge crowd and the hearing Tuesday lasted more than three hours.
Assistant Commissioner of Safety Earl Sweeney, in a position paper provided the House panel in support of the bill, said it would reinstate a ban the Legislature repealed two years ago.
Sweeney said the day of the Pelham explosion, there were two other incidents in New Hampshire, leaving the injured toll at 18.
“The devices involved were reloadable mortars, aerial spinners, parachutes and sparklers,” Sweeney said. “By removing the reloadable shells it reduces the significant risk to the use by untrained individuals.”
Pappathan, in written testimony, told the House panel mortar shells are inherently more dangerous than other types of fireworks.
He supports the ban.
“I’m generally opposed to banning things, especially things caused by my own ignorance and a very brief period of inattention,” Pappathan said. “The mortar shells had been unpacked and I was about to box them when I was momentarily distracted. I’ve learned that life can completely change in a matter of seconds.”
Fire chief James Midgley said the explosion was the worst in town history and taxed regional resources.
“Many of those injured spent weeks in the hospital and several will need continued surgeries and skin grafts,” Midgley said.
The bill is not an attack on the fireworks industry, but would eliminate three of the most dangerous devices on the market, the chief said.
“I ask you to consider what price is too high for us to pay to entertain ourselves with high yielding and unpredictable explosives,” Midgley said.
Selectman Ed Gleason, who had relatives injured in the explosion, said the incident was devastating to his family and he supported the bill.
“I am convinced these devices need to be banned from use by the general public,” Gleason said.
Some opposition surfaces
The bill faces some opposition from fireworks retailers.
Steve Carbone, president of Atomic Fireworks in Seabrook, told the House panel his business would suffer with a ban. He said he has purchased more than $100,000 in fireworks that would be outlawed if the ban is approved.
Steve Pelkey, CEO of Atlas Fireworks, which operates six stores including one in Londonderry, said his company isn’t taking a stand on the proposed ban. But he is raising concerns that retailers who have stocked up on inventory could be hurt.
“Stock has already been purchased and you have to allow them this season to get rid of the stock,” Pelkey said. “You can’t hurt the industry.”
If the fireworks in question are banned, Pelkey acknowledged one possible compromise would be to allow sales this year, but mandate retailers provide safety information to consumers.
Atlas does that already. He said if someone wanted to purchase the amount of fireworks the Pappathans had, Atlas staff would have talked to them about safety.
“That’s a lot of product. We’re going to have a serious discussion with them,” Pelkey said. “Our staff is trained to make them understand.”
Pelkey said he sees the Legislature’s decision two years ago to downgrade a state fireworks product review board to advisory status as a mistake.
He said the panel had experienced people from the industry and the fire service, who made good decisions about what products consumers could purchase.
“They had knowledge and used common sense and provided strong controls,” Pelkey said.
He would restore the board’s regulatory authority.
More work is ahead on the proposal.
Fesh said the legislative committee will be working on the bill, before issuing its recommendation to the full House. If it passes the House, the Senate will take up the bill.