SIMI VALLEY, Calif. – When a July Fourth fireworks display exploded and sent red and white bursts into spectators at a Southern California park, Paulina Mulkern saw shrapnel headed straight for her 4-year-old cousin.
Mulkern pushed the girl under a lawn chair, and then shielded her 7-year-old cousin with her body as scorching debris flew overhead.
“You feel the big old heat come right over your back,” she said Friday, still shaking as she recounted the explosion the night before that left her hospitalized with bruises and red marks on her back.
Thirty-nine people were injured as many in the crowd of thousands fled for safety. The victims, from 17 months to 78 years old, had burns and shrapnel wounds, and some were trampled, authorities and hospital officials said. The injured included 12 children.
Only three remained hospitalized Friday night.
Mulkern said she went into shock after being hit by a flying piece of debris, trembling badly as she was carried to a road where rescuers stripped off most of her clothes and wrapped her in a blanket.
“I was really terrified. Every time someone launched a firework it got me into panic mode and they just told me, ignore the sounds around you and concentrate on your breathing,” she recalled.
Police in Simi Valley, northwest of Los Angeles, said it appeared a firework exploded prematurely in its mortar, knocking over others and aiming them across the field. Fire investigators, however, said later they had not yet determined a cause.
Among other key questions investigators were trying to answer was whether the pyrotechnics display was set far enough away from spectators, and even if all the rules were followed, whether those guidelines needed to be revised so the public is kept farther back from launch sites.
Regulations require crowds be kept 70 feet away for every inch of diameter of the largest shell.
By those standards, spectators should have been at least 350 feet away from the show put on by Bethpage, N.Y.-based Bay Fireworks, said Ventura County Fire Department Deputy Chief Mike LaPlant. The distance of spectators from the show will be one of many factors considered by investigators.
Of the victims, all but three had been treated and released by late Friday, hospital officials said.
One patient was being treated by specialists at Grossman Burn Center and two other adults remained hospitalized in fair condition, said Kim Milstein, chief executive of Simi Valley Hospital.