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Fireworks accident may change Sparklebration launch precautions

Published Jul. 5, 2012

DADE CITY — The Sparklebration fireworks show that abruptly ended Wednesday night after an explosion injured a worker has prompted organizers to consider new procedures to prevent similar accidents.

Wilton Simpson, chairman of the Pasco County Fair Association board, said the worker manually lit the fireworks, including a faulty mortar that exploded only a few feet away, causing burns and shrapnel wounds to the man's hands and face.

"What we're going to do to correct this in the future is we're going to insist on an electrical release," Simpson said. "That's where someone sits and pushes a button a couple of hundred feet away."

Pasco Assistant Fire Rescue Chief Cynthia Holland said the site of the show, put on by Zambelli Internationale at the Pasco County Fairgrounds, was inspected twice. The second inspection took place just hours before the first firework was lit.

Both times, everything appeared to be in order.

"We don't get involved with the actual detonation," said Holland. The public is required to stay a certain number of feet away, though Holland wasn't certain how far that was.

According to preliminary findings, the explosive detonated prematurely, causing non-life threatening injuries to the Zambelli worker. The employee, whose name was not released, was taken to the Tampa General Hospital and was expected to be released Thursday.

This marked the first such incident at Sparklebration that Simpson could think of. The Tampa Bay Times archives traces the event back to at least 1991. Over the years it has changed sponsors a few times and was canceled some years for lack of volunteers.

"The worst we ever had was a rain out," Simpson said.

Simpson said the board had full faith in Zambelli, which has produced the show for years. The company, based in New Castle, Pa., was founded in 1893 and puts on thousands of shows a year, including shows in New York City's Times Square, Washington, D.C., and a huge show just before the Kentucky Derby in Louisville. It was featured in a 2002 PBS documentary about fireworks.

"We've had a great experience with them," Simpson said.

Zambelli president and CEO Doug Taylor said the company manufactures some of its fireworks and buys some from vendors.

He said it was unlikely the company could trace the faulty shell to its manufacturer.

"The shells are not specifically put into tube number 14 or tube number 15," he said. "It's left up to the technician to spend the time to put things were they ought to be."

He said each shell is handmade and the company tests them extensively before accepting products from new vendors.

Also, he said, workers in charge of shows are trained and required to assist at other shows before they allowed to handle things on their own.

Taylor said many shows are still produced with fireworks lit by hand, though more are produced with electric releases over the past decade as technology has improved.

"It costs a lot more money to put on an electric show," he said.

Taylor said the company is cooperating in the investigation and welcomes reviews from any other agencies such as the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, also known as OSHA.

In 2009, Zambelli was fined in connection with the death of a 19-year-old employee who was killed during an accidental explosion at a Pennsylvania Fourth of July display. Zambelli Fireworks Manufacturing Co. had to pay $4,200 because the 8-inch mortar that delivered the fatal blast was not buried at least three quarters of its length in the ground and because employees were not wearing hard hats while igniting fireworks.

The employee was hit by pieces of a sand-filled wooden launching container that was shattered by the ground explosion, authorities said.

OSHA records included at least one other instance of a Zambelli worker killed in an explosion: a 2002 incident in Newburgh, N.Y. The worker was moving the fireworks from a truck to a bunker when they exploded. The agency recorded seven other serious fireworks accidents between 2002 and 2009 that involved other companies.

"It's such a risk even for the professionals," said Holland, the assistant fire chief.

Simpson said the injured employee, a local resident, was doing well.

"He was upset that we had to stop the show," Simpson said. Fair representatives rescheduled it for next evening and didn't charge for parking or admission.

"We see this as a community service event to honor our country," Simpson said.

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