A blaze erupted at a fireworks store busy with Fourth of July shoppers Wednesday, killing at least eight people and injuring 12. Three people suspected of starting the fire were taken into custody.
Bottle rockets whizzed, strings of firecrackers exploded and smoke filled the cinderblock building as about 40 people scrambled for the front door, witnesses said.
Frank Meehling, a Huntington, W.Va., man who escaped with his wife and 2-year-old son, said he heard a man yell, “No, no, don’t do that!” before a teenager lit a firecracker in the store and the back wall went up in flames.
A worker who left the store minutes beforehand said he returned after hearing the popping a mile away.
“The first thing I saw was a bunch of things going and smoke rolling. I heard a lot of people screaming and coming out of the building. It’s a shame it had to happen,” said Gary McGuire, 21, of Mercerville, Ohio.
The eight dead included at least two children - one 2 or 3 years old, the other about 9, Sheriff Roy Smith said. They were found huddled around an adult at Ohio River Fireworks, in extreme southern Ohio near the West Virginia line, he said.
Smith said the three suspects had intentionally thrown firecrackers in the store, according to a report by WOWK-TV in Huntington, W.Va. Earlier, the sheriff said deputies were told someone stuck a cigarette lighter into a box of fireworks.
Smith would not identify the suspects and no charges were immediately filed. He said the three had been seen talking outside the store shortly before the fire began.
The building had a front door and a back door, Smith said, but it was unclear whether the 40 or so people inside were aware of the back entrance.
Meehling said he ran out of the store, then went back inside when he realized his wife, Elizabeth, and son, Hunter, were not behind him. He said he began pulling other people out. His wife and son escaped unharmed.
“I was grabbing them by the hair of their heads, just anything I could get hold of,” Meehling said.
Thick white smoke billowed from the cinder-block building, which was set back in the woods in a rural area. Water to fight the fire had to be trucked in from four communities. The roof collapsed, but the walls were left standing.
The fire was under control in about three hours, but removing the bodies would take longer, said Smith, who said he didn’t know whether everyone inside had been accounted for.
“They’re coming out slowly now. They’re letting things cool down before bringing out the bodies,” Smith said.
Some victims were burned so badly that authorities will need to examine dental records to identify them, Smith said.
Survivors were hospitalized with injuries including smoke inhalation and severe burns. Three were in critical condition, said Cabell Huntington Hospital spokeswoman Kathy Cosco.