July 4, 2013

Mainer 'lucky' to be alive after explosion

John Littlefield spent 10 days in the hospital after Portland's 2012 "Stars and Stripes Spectacular" fireworks display went wrong.

By Randy Billings rbillings@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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John Littlefield was injured last year when fireworks prematurely exploded during the fireworks show in Portland on July 5. Littlefield was working on a barge, helping to light off the fireworks when the explosion occurred. Littlefield poses on the Eastern Prom on Tuesday, July 2, 2013 next to a dumpster that holds mortar tubes that will be used to set off this year's fireworks.

Gregory Rec / Staff Photographer

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Scott Trouwborst of Moonlighting Production Services sets up the sound on the stage where Don McLean and the Portland Symphony Orchestra will perform during the "Stars and Stripes Spectacular," Portland's Fourth of July fireworks and concert celebration on the Eastern Promenade in Portland on July 3, 2013.

Tim Greenway / Staff Photographer

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Last year was the first time Portland's fireworks were shot from a barge -- to free up more seating on the Eastern Promenade, said city spokeswoman Nicole Clegg.

This year, Atlas PyroVision, which has produced the city's fireworks show for years, will go back to firing from a staging area on the prom. The reason isn't Littlefield's injuries, Clegg said, but because the show shot from the barge wasn't as good and presented more challenges.

"Based on the currents, (the barge) had to be placed in a very specific area," Clegg said. "And that actually didn't provide for the best viewing experience for the people closest to the shoreline."

Another logistical challenge was a severe thunderstorm that prompted the city to postpone the fireworks from July 4 to July 5.

Littlefield recalled the crew battening down the hatches as the storm approached and its effort to keep the plywood shelter from flying away.

The wind was so strong, he said, that the barge was dragging its anchor. As lightning flashed overhead, the crew could only pray that a bolt wouldn't ignite the barge.

Moisture can cause mortars to misfire, and Littlefield said the crew noticed more misfires than usual on July 5 -- at least a half dozen, compared with the one or two in a typical show.

One shell exploded in the water next to the barge, and another exploded on the barge, causing a small fire that was quickly extinguished by the crew, he said.

Stephen Pelkey, chief executive officer of Atlas PyroVision Productions, said in an email that Littlefield's injuries were likely caused by a piece of cardboard shrapnel from a mortar that detonated just above the barge.

"The cause of the low breaking shell was determined to be insufficient lift charge as a result of water damage from the significant rainfall the previous day," said Pelkey.

Under Maine's workers compensation law, Atlas had to pay for Littlefield's medical bills and lost wages.

Littlefield would not provide an estimate of his medical bills, but he now gets a weekly check for $6.01 for his lost wages.

There is no recourse for pain and suffering, under Maine's law, for employees who get hurt on the job, said Paul Sighinolfi, executive director of the Maine Worker's Compensation Board.

Sighinolfi said Maine's law -- like those in other states -- was drafted that way so employees don't have to prove negligence by employers.

Pelkey said the company added safety measures after Littlefield's injury.

Crews must fully re-inspect all mortar tubes after heavy rain and remove damaged shells, he said. And only three workers will be allowed for barge-fired shows, and all must remain behind the plywood shelter.

"We are very pleased with our record of incidents regarding the professional display of fireworks," Pelkey said.

Portland officials believe that the 50,000 spectators who are expected to attend this year's 25-minute show -- featuring more than 3,000 shells -- will have nothing to worry about.

"We are confident that Atlas will put on a safe show," said Anita LaChance, the city's director of recreation and facilities management. "Fireworks are inherently dangerous, but Atlas is an experienced company, firing approximately 700 shows annually."

Littlefield said a part of him wishes he were out there getting ready for this year's show.

"I just had a blast with those guys," he said, "and they're getting ready to do this again."


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


Twitter: @randybillings


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Additional Photos

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A post-surgey X-ray shows the metal plates and screws implanted in John Littlefield's left shoulder to repair the injuries he suffered when fireworks misfired at Portland's 2012 Independence Day festivities. LIttlefield said doctors treated him for a broken humerus, clavicle, scapula, neck vertebrae, ribs, and a collapsed lung. Littlefield was contracted by Atlas Fireworks to work as part of the fireworks crew on the barge holding the fireworks that night.

Photo provided by John Littlefield


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