Independence Day fireworks gone wrong

Independence Day fireworks gone wrong

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After every July Fourth we hear about the sickening tally of those injured or maimed by illegal firecrackers and explosives that were fired off in the name of fun. We routinely say, “How idiotic. Why don’t they just leave the fireworks to the professionals and go watch the show someplace?” There are always places to see the artful displays, hear the raucous explosions and cheer together the red, white and blue. If all else fails, there is the television or the computer screen. Do we have to injure ourselves to fully honor the actions of the colonists almost two-and-one-half centuries ago?

This subject is of more than casual interest to my family. When my dad was growing up on an upstate New York farm, one of nine children, a neighbor brought the family some explosive caps with which to properly celebrate Independence Day. The children gathered around a large boulder and cheered with each explosion, as my father’s favorite brother smashed the caps in turn with a rock he held in his hand. But one refused to go off. To make sure he was hitting the cap in exactly the right spot, he bent his head close to the obdurate explosive and carefully aimed his blow. This time it did explode and blew out his right eye. Needless to say, that was the end of that in my household.

The trail of these stupid tragedies continues.

When we first arrived here, on the beautiful North Shore of Suffolk from our Texas air force base, at the end of June, 47 years ago, my husband, who was an ophthalmologist, applied for hospital privileges at St. Charles in Port Jefferson. He was admitted to the ranks with the news that his first “on call” day would be on July 4. His first patient, waiting for him in the emergency room, was a teenage boy whose eye had been destroyed by an Independence Day explosive. He tended to the boy, of course, but never got over the horror of that sight and was sickened by the memory every year. It had been more traumatic for him than the many cases he had treated during the Vietnam War.

With these illegal explosives, brought in gleefully from distant states, we are to this day making war on ourselves. There is the story of the young visitor from Virginia in New York City, who was romping over the rocks in Central Park with his two buddies, when he stepped on a plastic bag of explosives that went off and destroyed his foot. There are seemingly unending stories of hands blown off, faces disfigured, house fires started, bystanders wounded and all manner of ugly consequences from fireworks across America. Some 230 wound up in emergency rooms at the latest count.

When John Adams wrote a letter to his wife, Abigail, on July 4, 1776, envisioning a dazzling annual celebration of independence from Britain, he surely didn’t consider such carnage as part of the party. Nor did he imagine the single horror that brought about what was probably the first city ordinance in America banning the possession or sale of fireworks within the city limits.

It happened in Cleveland in 1908. A clerk in S.S. Kresge’s department store was showing a 4-year-old boy and his mother a “harmless” sparkler with which to celebrate the holiday when a spark flew into the nearby display of skyrockets, torpedoes and candles. The store was almost immediately engulfed in flames. Seven people died, including the little boy, and dozens more were injured as the store burned. The tragedy prompted the city council to act, and many more cities and states have outlawed explosives over the last century.

But there are still states where the sale of explosives is legal, and the present concern is that a growing movement seems underway to relax some of the current legal restrictions. The Consumer Product Safety Commission, which regulates the sale of fireworks, reported that in addition to the many maimings from explosives 11 people died in 2014 alone. Why?