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Firework that killed Tampa teen illegal but available

Joseph M. King, 16, was killed after a mortar-style firework blew up in his hand Thursday on the 4200 block of East Osborne Avenue. King, who would have been a junior at Middleton High School in the fall, was visiting a family member's house at the time and lived about a mile away with his mother and two sisters, said his great aunt, Brenda Brantley. [Photo courtesy Brenda Brantley]
Published Jul. 6, 2018

TAMPA — Just before 11 p.m. Thursday, Joseph M. King clutched a powerful cylinder in his hand.

The mortar shell firework was supposed to be fired from the ground. But King, 16, was holding the tube and attempting to launch when it detonated, Tampa police said.

The force of the explosion caused what police called "significant injury" to his left hand and left side of his chest. Witnesses were tending to King as officers arrived. He was pronounced dead at Tampa General Hospital a short time later.

The type of firework that killed King is illegal in Florida but is commonly sold in stores and at roadside stands because of a loophole in Florida law.

When the explosion happened, King was in front of a house in the 4200 block of East Osborne Avenue in the Northview Hills neighborhood. The soaked remnants of a bottle rocket lay on a sidewalk leading to the home Friday. A lone white latex glove sat shriveled in the gutter.

A man and woman sitting on the porch of the home declined to speak to the Tampa Bay Times.

King lived in a house about a mile away, on 35th Street. Relatives gathered outside the home Friday declined to comment.

RELATED : Yes, most fireworks are illegal in Florida. No, that doesn't stop anyone. Here's why.

In a phone interview, King's great aunt, Brenda Brantley, said King was the youngest of three siblings and lived with his mother, Mary Keys, and two older sisters. He attended Greco Middle School and would have been a junior at Middleton High in the fall.

She described King as a jokester who liked to rap and use a Playstation. He had a special bond with the great-grandmother he called Granny.

"Everybody he met will remember him," said Brantley, 60. "You just loved being around him because he was a lot of fun."

Brantley said King was at a family member's house at the time of the explosion.

Key questions remained unanswered Friday. Police initially reported that King intended to launch the device while he was holding it. Later, a Tampa Police Department spokesman said investigators were still working to confirm details.

"It was lit while he was holding it, that is the information we have right now," spokesman Eddy Durkin said in an email. "Detectives are still working with witnesses to determine what, exactly, he was doing at the time the firework detonated."

It was also unclear how and where King got the firework, and if any adults were present. Detectives were working to determine what, if any, criminal charges would apply, Durkin said.

All fireworks, defined as anything that leaves the ground or explodes, have been illegal to sell or set off in Florida since 1941. The exceptions are those who get a permit from the local government, are illuminating railroads, or are buying them for "agricultural use" to frighten birds away from crops.

Consumers in Florida who buys fireworks at roadside tents and standalone stores sign a form saying they're familiar with Florida's fireworks laws. The state law does not set a minimum age for buyers, but sellers such as Phantom Fireworks and Galaxy Fireworks require buyers to sign forms stating the customer is at least 18 years old.

Nick Ruiz, manager of the Phantom store on Gandy Boulevard, said the company requires all customers to hand over identification to prove their age.

"Any customer is going to have present a government-issued ID to purchase fireworks," Ruiz said.

Still, statistics show fireworks are especially lethal to young people.

Eight people died from fireworks-related incidents in the United States in 2017 and about 12,900 were injured, according to a Consumer Product Safety Commission report. About half of those injured were younger than 20, and more than third were younger than 16, the report shows. An average of roughly seven people have died annually since 2002.

Contact Tony Marrero at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.

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