July 3, 2013

Even professional fireworks can be risky

The most tragic example is a death in 1993, when a pyrotechnician was killed during a Bar Harbor show.

By Randy Billings rbillings@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND – The city has had four incidents involving professional fireworks displays in the past 15 years. That's more than any other community in Maine, according to the state's Fire Marshal's Office.

click image to enlarge

Fireworks and the Portland Symphony Orchestrate entertain crowds on the Eastern Promenade in Portland on Sunday, July 4, 2010.

Gregory Rec / Staff Photographer

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While the Fire Marshal's Office could not readily provide a list of commercial-fireworks injuries, a review of newspaper articles shows at least a handful of incidents – most involving commercial fireworks fired by hand – in the past 30 years.

A pyrotechnician for Maine Pyrotechnics sustained minor burns during a show fired from a barge in Sanford last year.

In 2010, two workers from Central Maine Pyrotechnics of Hallowell were injured in unrelated incidents in Augusta and Belgrade.

In 1993, a pyrotechnician from Central Fireworks in Augusta was killed when a mortar exploded prematurely, setting off other explosions, during a show fired from a barge in Bar Harbor.

That same year, a firefighter lost a hand while hand-firing a show from a barge in Greenville.

Portland appears to have had particular trouble with commercial fireworks mishaps, at least in recent years.

Atlas PyroVision Productions has been doing Portland's shows since at least 1999, except in 2009, when Fireworks by Grucci was contracted by the city, said Ellen Sanborn, the city's finance director.

The city cannot say how many years before 1999 the company did its fireworks displays because of limitations in record-keeping, said spokeswoman Nicole Clegg.

In 1997, a faulty lift charge -- the device that sends a fireworks shell hundreds of feet into the air -- went off just 3 feet above the ground, setting off boxes of fireworks nearby. That show -- by Atlas Advanced Pryotechnics of Jaffrey, N.H. -- ended after just a few minutes. Three workers were injured.

Atlas PyroVision Chief Executive Officer Stephen Pelky did not respond to an email asking whether the company was previously called Atlas Advanced Pyrotechnics.

An Atlas show went awry in Massachusetts in 1997 and the company faced fines of $26,500 for safety violations, The Boston Globe reported.

In Portland, a burning ember from a New Year's Eve fireworks show put on by Atlas PyroVision Productions started a small fire on the roof of One City Center in 2004-05.

The company has had two major mishaps in the last three years in Portland.

In 2010, a piece of burning ash ignited a fire in a storage container, setting off fireworks after the grand finale. No one was injured.

And last year, John Littlefield of Dayton, working for Atlas PyroVision Productions, was seriously hurt when a shell exploded low above the barge, hitting him with a cardboard projectile.

When Atlas PyroVision Productions responded to the city's request for fireworks proposals in 2012, it said it had had no "accidents" in the previous three years.

"Firing 700 displays a year, we have experienced the usual car claim and an occasional ash in the eye that is treated on the scene," the letter said. That claim was amended this year to say the company has had "no 'accidents' involving the public."

Pelkey said in an email that there is a difference between "accidents" and "incidents." The latter are reasonable risks associated with the job, he said, while an accident is a serious incident or injury involving the public.

"In this (2010) case, there was no injury as a result of any malfunction. It was merely the loss of equipment," Pelkey said. "It is rare, but sometimes we lose a piece of equipment."

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

rbillings@pressherald.com

Twitter: @randybillings 

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