By Kyle Barr
Every Fourth of July, if only for a few hours, Long Islanders create their own stars in the night sky.
If one drives down the side streets and residential neighborhoods late at night on America’s birthday, one can hear a chorus of whistles and pops from every direction. People in local neighborhoods sit in lawn chairs with their necks craned to the night sky to watch the lights flash high over their own roofs. All those involved know that, without a license, it’s illegal to own, sell and, especially, to light any fireworks in New York state, but this is Independence Day, and the date demands ceremony.
On one street in Port Jefferson Station, where locals hosted their own fireworks show, the air was suffused with a burning smoke that smelled like brimstone and burning paper. Fireworks enthusiast Louie, who agreed to comment if his last name would be withheld, along with his brother and their friends, laid out rows of mortars stretching more than 10 yards down the street. For close to two hours nonstop the fireworks illuminated the sky and onlookers cheered.
“Jones Beach does it, Bald Hill does it … why can’t we do it?” Louie said.
Louie said he has helped set off his block’s firework display for four years, and each July Fourth his group sets off more than $2,000 worth of fireworks.
Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) warned residents ahead of the holiday in a YouTube video that the county would be enacting a zero-tolerance policy for the possession, use and sale of illegal fireworks.
“We are here today to talk about the Fourth of July and how we all love to get together and celebrate,” Bellone said in the video. “We always hear about these incidents happening and they are unnecessary, preventable injuries.”
Officials asked Suffolk residents to attend licensed firework shows going on all across the Island, rather than creating their own events. There were shows at Bald Hill, in Wading River, at Peconic Riverfront in Riverhead, on East Beach in Port Jefferson, on Shelter Island and at the Long Island Ducks stadium in Bethpage, to name a few.
Suffolk County is stricter on fireworks than other parts of the state. While New York passed a law in January that made owning sparklers legal, in Suffolk owning a sparkler remains a misdemeanor. Owning certain fireworks, like the M-80s, which were originally designed by the United States military to simulate gunfire, or the mortar-type of fireworks, is a Class E felony subject to up to four years in prison.
Several individuals were arrested this year and charged with crimes of possessing and selling fireworks. In June, a Medford man was arrested for having $100,000 worth of fireworks in a storage facility. Later that same month, an Oakdale man was arrested for bringing $2,000 worth of fireworks home from Pennsylvania and selling them online.
“We take it very seriously,” 4th Precinct Capt. Kevin Williams said at the June 1 Smithtown Town board meeting. “All fireworks are illegal, and that includes sparklers. Some of the larger fireworks that we see today, the M-80 fireworks or the mortars that people shoot up, those are designated as explosives under New York State Labor Law.”
The danger presented by misusing fireworks is real. Nationally, fireworks were identified in 12,900 hospital visits and eight deaths in 2017, according to a report by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission released in June this year.
Suffolk police reported that a man from Gordon Heights lost three of his fingers
after a firework exploded in his hand this year. Another woman, a Florida resident who was visiting her family in Mastic, was injured after she tossed a lit cigarette in an ashtray which caused a firework that had been placed there to explode. The detonation severed the tip of one finger and injured other fingers on her right hand. Both were sent to Stony Brook University Hospital for their injuries.
Dr. Steven Sandoval, medical director of Suffolk County Volunteer Firefighters Burn Center at Stony Brook University Hospital, said the last weeks of June and the first two weeks of July are the peak in terms of burn center patients. On average his unit receives five to 10 patients every Fourth of July season, and that’s not including those who arrive to the hospital with other, non-burn related injuries. By July 5 this year, the burn center received four patients who had injuries related to fireworks, but Sandoval said they would not know the total number of injuries until a month has passed.
“Every other year there’s a fatal or near-fatal event that occurs from fireworks,” Sandoval said. “This is a vulnerable population, who might already be intoxicated, inebriated or have been standing out in the sun all day … people should leave fireworks to the professionals.”
Those people setting off the pyrotechnic display in Port Jeff Station said they understood the hazard that fireworks presented.
“We’re all organized, not drunk, professional and we have order,” Louie said. “We have communication, and communication is key.”
Still, there is always danger when it comes to explosives. The street in Port Jeff Station was bordered by power lines and trees that an off-course rocket could potentially strike. One neighbor put large towels and cardboard boxes on her fence to mitigate any potential burn damage. After the grand finale, where the group let off their last rockets and mortars, they started to throw loud firecrackers into the street. One of them bounced into a neighbor’s yard right next to a fence. The firework exploded and dug a small hole an inch deep into the dirt.
Despite it all, the neighbors laughed and cheered anyway.