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Firework mishaps altered lives

Fri., June 30, 2006

The burst of a microwave popcorn bag triggers a flashback to the night when a firework – equivalent to three sticks of dynamite – blew up in David Sylvester’s face.

And as Sylvester was reeling, another firework shell, with the same explosive power, hit him in the back.

That night in Priest River almost a year ago changed Sylvester’s life forever.

The explosion caused second- and third-degree burns to his body, blew a hole the size of a Nerf football in his leg, broke his femur in 12 sections, ruptured two disks in his back and fractured his index finger in 15 places.

“I’ve gone from being OK to being permanently disabled,” Sylvester said.

The 55-year-old Spokane resident was one of three pyrotechnicians injured during commercial fireworks displays across the Inland Northwest last year.

His colleague, Peter Black, was on a barge in Liberty Lake tending to that community’s fireworks show when one of the shells misfired.

Black’s upper leg was shattered, and his knee cap broken in half. Jay McPhee, who was helping Black, suffered minor injuries.

Now, with numerous commercial fireworks displays being prepared for Fourth of July celebrations across the Inland Northwest, new laws are governing pyrotechnics in Washington, and updated safety procedures have been adopted by the company that performs the majority of the shows in North Idaho.

Either way, Sylvester and Black are done hand-lighting commercial fireworks for good.

“Physically I would be unable to do pyrotechnics again because of my leg,” said Black, 45, who was a pyrotechnician for 22 years. “Even if I could, I wouldn’t. It’s not so much me. It’s the people around me that I’m responsible for. If what happened to me were to happen to anybody else, I couldn’t live with that.”

The major changes to the law are that hand-fired displays from barges have to be on platforms twice the size of those in previous years, which allows more room for fireworks technicians to move around and get away from malfunctioning explosives if necessary, said Larry Glenn, Washington’s deputy fire marshal. Also, shells over 6 inches in diameter cannot be used in hand-fired shows. Fireworks shells go up to 2 feet in diameter.

The new law took effect on June 27.

“The changes in the law will help prevent what happened to Pete and myself,” Sylvester said. “I think that will make it safer in the long run for everyone else.”

Entertainment Fireworks Inc., the company that Sylvester and Black worked for, has also made some adjustments in its practices, said Rich Vaughn, director of the firm’s eastern regional sales and operations.

“The accident was an eye-opener for me,” Vaughn said. “I took a long hard look at some of my practices.

“We are providing the option for our technicians to fire electronically rather than manually,” Vaughn said. Pyrotechnicians use something similar to a road flare to hand-light firework fuses, which Vaughn said eventually will cease industrywide.

“We’ve had to come up with some more equipment,” Vaughn said. “We probably doubled the amount of mortars (the cylinder a firework’s shell is shot out of) we had so our guys would be safer.” By providing additional mortars, pyrotechnicians don’t have to reload fireworks.

“We also went through and did a safety refresher course with all our technicians,” Vaughn said.

Sylvester and Black each described their experience as “a freak accident.”

Major accidents that happen during commercial fireworks displays occur maybe one-tenth of 1 percent of the time worldwide, said Larry Mattingly, vice president of sales, marketing and training at Olympia-based Entertainment Fireworks.

Considering the number of fireworks displays that are put on each year, that’s pretty amazing, said Mattingly, who has had 40-plus years experience in the pyrotechnics business.

Sylvester is still under a doctor’s care. On Wednesday, his doctor told him he would need a fourth, and possibly a fifth, surgery.

He lost his job as an X-ray technician and likely will have to go into another field because he can’t lift more than 30 pounds.

Black is back at work at Cardinal Health, a nuclear pharmacy. He uses a cane to get around.

Neither of the men has regrets about being pyrotechnicians. And Sylvester’s attitude about life is positive despite his injuries.

“I love fireworks, and I always will,” said Sylvester, who wears a custom-built brace on his left leg. The brace is purple and decorated with fireworks stickers.

“If you are going to be sick or disabled and you can’t have fun with it, you might as well give up and die.”

Sylvester also uses his injuries as somewhat of a teaching tool.

“I don’t think getting blown up is the best way to get your 15 minutes of fame,” Sylvester said of the attention he’s been paid since the accident. “I’m going back to Priest Lake this year,” Sylvester said. “I’m going there sort of as a visual aid. This is what happens when you do absolutely everything right, and something goes wrong.”


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