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Explosion's cause still a mystery

The morning after a truckload of fireworks exploded, killing five people in Lee County, David Everett offered some safety tips to his Clearwater fireworks crew:

Don't smoke.

Don't use an electric lift.

Don't leave the truck running while loading and unloading fireworks.

"Mostly it's a common-sense type of situation," said Everett, owner of Skypainter Fireworks, which is putting on tonight's display in Clearwater. "You follow all of the rules and regulations and use your common sense, and everything is usually okay."

On Thursday, investigators in Bonita Springs gingerly combed the scene of the huge fireworks explosion, looking for clues to what set off the blast Wednesday at a barrier island.

Authorities initially were concerned about entering the gulfside scene because of concerns that live fireworks may still remain.

The bodies of four victims were not removed until midday Thursday, when investigators were certain it was safe. The fifth victim, Ken Kinard of Cocoa Beach, died Thursday at the burn unit at Tampa General Hospital, where he had been brought for treatment.

The sole survivor of the blast, Juanita Combs, was released from HealthPark Medical Center in Fort Myers. Investigators planned to interview her. Combs is believed to be from the St. Louis area, where the shipment of fireworks originated.

"The amazing thing about her is when the explosions started and she heard it, she ran and jumped in the water, so her injuries are not very great," said Lee County sheriff's spokesman Sgt. Michael Maschmeier.

Identities of the four people killed Wednesday had not been released. Authorities said they were burned beyond recognition.

There was no early indication of the explosion's cause, according to officials with the Sheriff's Office and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

About 50 investigators on Thursday searched the charred site and around the hulls of two incinerated trucks, marking unexploded fireworks with small orange flags. Offshore, sheriff's divers searched the shallow water for live fireworks.

Susan Harvey, the owner of Sunset Fireworks of Dittmer, Mo., the company shipping the display, arrived in Fort Myers to speak with investigators. Sunset Fireworks and its sister company, Pyro Products, have been the target of several federal investigations in recent years following deadly explosions at their plants.

Workers were removing the fireworks from a semitrailer truck Wednesday afternoon when a series of powerful blasts erupted, shooting flames into the sky and shaking the ground. The truck was carrying $50,000 worth of fireworks destined for displays in Bonita Springs and Naples.

The explosions scattered debris for 100 yards in every direction and blackened 10 to 15 acres of the small barrier island in Lovers Key State Park, south of Fort Myers Beach.

Because of the tragedy, both Bonita Springs and Naples have planned tributes today to the dead Sunset workers in lieu of the canceled fireworks shows.

According to its Web site, Sunset Fireworks has been in the pyrotechnics business for more than 40 years. The company was sued in February by two workers injured in explosions that killed two others at a suburban St. Louis fireworks plant in November 1999.

The key question for investigators: What went wrong Wednesday as workers transferred the fireworks?

Capt. Ken Carr, hazardous materials enforcement coordinator for the Florida Department of Transportation, said a 4-inch-thick book covers rules and regulations for shipping hazardous materials.

Carr said officials investigating the blast will ask all sorts of questions.

"Was someone inside smoking?" Carr asked. "Did someone drop something? Were the people trained in what they were doing? There are all sorts of possibilities."

In his 23 years in business, said Everett, who will stage tonight's fireworks display in Clearwater, he has not had an accident, injury or insurance claim.

He and his wife drive truckloads of fireworks to concerts, golf tournaments and cities, he said.

It would take a lot for something bad to happen, he said.

"This is a very stable product," said Everett, 45. "It takes some source of ignition like a flame to get it to ignite."

_ Times staff writer Leanora Minai contributed to this report, which also used information from the Associated Press.

Fireworks injuries

Fireworks warnings increase each year before the Fourth of July, for good reason:

From June 21 to July 21 last year _ a special study period surrounding Independence Day _ 5,700 fireworks-related cases were treated at U.S. hospitals, with the most common injuries being to hands and eyes, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission said in a report issued last month.

Children under 15 accounted for about half the injuries during the one-month period, the report said. Last year, about 8,800 people were injured and four were killed by fireworks. Two of the deaths came at professional fireworks displays.