EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

June 26, 2013

Fireworks safety still a concern, but no laws passed

But no new regulations have been passed

By John Toole
jtoole@eagletribune.com

---- — A Pelham family whose annual Fourth of July celebration last year ended with an explosion that injured 13 is done with their neighborhood fireworks display.

“No, they will absolutely not have one,” Pelham Selectmen’s Chairman Ed Gleason said of his relatives in the Pappathan family. “This has been too traumatic an experience. There have been too many repercussions.”

For some, those repercussions will unfold for years to come. Gleason said his step-great-grandson, Ben Bertini, 4, can expect skin treatments for burns until he is 21.

A fire marshal’s investigation ruled the fireworks explosion, the worst in state history, accidental.

A report provided to the Legislature said one firework, what witnesses described as a “spinner,” flew off a deck, landing in a pile of reloadable mortar shells stored on a deck as people gathered to watch.

The horror that unfolded will be with the partygoers forever.

“I’ve learned that life can completely change in a matter of seconds,” homeowner Chris Pappathan told lawmakers.

The Legislature, at the urging of the fire marshal, is considering a ban of reloadable mortar shells, but put off action this session.

Pelham selectmen, in the aftermath of the accident, last year held community forums to consider actions that could have included a ban, but decided, 3-2, against pursuing tighter regulations.

No one who spoke to selectmen wanted a ban.

Town officials initially talked about working with fireworks companies to better educate the public about safety, but that has not happened.

“The education process has not materialized,” said Gleason, who had favored instituting a permit system after the accident. “This has died a slow death. There was no support for it.”

Ohio-based Phantom Fireworks, which operates stores in Londonderry and Seabrook, would oppose a state ban on reloadable mortars, a company executive said yesterday.

William A. Weimer, vice president with Phantom, said it wasn’t the fireworks that caused the injuries in Pelham.

“It was the mishandling of the products,” he said.

Weimer maintains there was insufficient distance between the fireworks and spectators.

The decisions by Pelham officials and the Legislature not to act at this time acknowledge as much, in his view.

“I think it is an acknowledgement by both legislative bodies that it was not the product itself, it was the handling of the product,” Weimer said.

The Legislature’s work will continue.

House Bill 336, sponsored by Rep. Charlene Takesian, R-Pelham, relating to prohibiting the sale of some fireworks, will be studied during the summer and fall.

Retained for more work in the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, the panel has until Nov. 22 to issue a report, House Clerk Karen Wadsworth said.

Speaker Terie Norelli has requested committees hold no meetings during July, so August would be the earliest the committee would continue the review, Wadsworth said.

The committee as a whole could work on the issue or refer it to a subcommittee, she said.

Ultimately, the committee will recommend the bill pass, be passed with an amendment or be killed by the House.

State Fire Marshal William Degnan conceded in March he was disappointed the Legislature didn’t act.

“I’m hopeful the Legislature will do the right thing when they come back next year,” he said at that time.

Phantom is continuing its efforts to educate consumers about safely handling fireworks.

Tips are distributed to customers in Phantom’s stores, the company offers classes, safety videos are posted on YouTube and the firm’s website includes a “Fireworks University” section.

“We do our best to get the safety message out,” Weimer said.

People are using fireworks more safely, he said.

While the number of fireworks imported — most are made overseas — has doubled to 234 million pounds since 1994, injuries have fallen from about 12,500 to 9,600 in that same time, Weimer said.

Weimer said Phantom believes a good experience with fireworks doesn’t involve injury.

He recommends people use a designated shooter who will be responsible for private shows. “A sober individual who is rationale and in charge of the operation,” he said.

Gleason said people need to be safe.

“Be extremely careful and cautious,” he said.

Phantom earlier this year gained national attention with the disclosure Boston Marathon bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsaranev had purchased fireworks from its Seabrook store.

“It was us that told the FBI he had shopped in our store,” Weimer said.

The company used customer records to confirm the purchase.

Weimer said the company keeps such records as part of a bonus system for patrons, but maintains customer privacy.

Phantom has added homeland security language to paperwork since that discovery, saying products are not to be used for illegal purposes, he said.

Weimer acknowledges that may not deter a committed terrorist.

“It’s just a warning, a notice,” he said. “We hope if it works in once instance it’s worth it.”