July 3, 1997, 9:30 p.m.: Mad Bomber Productions is staging its July 4 fireworks display from barges in the Mississippi River near Alton, Illinois.
The crew prepares a rapid succession launch of 8-inch shells from 7 side-by-side mortars.
The shell from mortar 3 turns out to be a “low blow” that arcs only 10 feet into the air before falling. “Fire in the hole,” somebody yells.
It’s too late. The shell crashes into the barge deck, igniting other shells stored in the wooden “ready box.” An enormous fireball engulfs the vessel.
The spectators on shore applaud wildly. They think it’s part of the show.
Only later will they learn that they’re witnessing a tragedy. Two crew members suffer severe burns; a third injures his ankle but manages to cling to the side of the barge and is eventually rescued.
Those 3 are the lucky ones. 42-year-old technician Raymond Hernandez is killed by the blast.
Crew members Ralph Duty, age 47, and his cousin, Rick Cisneros, 45, leap off the prow and into the river. They’re not wearing life jackets. Their bodies are found downriver the next morning.
Lesson 1: You Can Get Fined for Not Following Voluntary Standards
Mad Bomber was fined $154,000 for not giving life jackets to crew members and failing to follow National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) for Fireworks Displays. The second violation is a bit surprising given that NFPA is a voluntary safety standard rather than a law. The moral: Not complying with voluntary standard can get you into legal trouble because it’s evidence that you didn’t show due diligence to protect your workers.
Lesson 2: Don’t Futz with Fireworks
Far from a bozo outfit, Mad Bomber is a production company made up of experienced and seasoned pros. So if this kind of thing can happen to them, imagine the trouble your workers can get into if they mess with fireworks in their backyard. And as the holiday approaches, that’s a message worth passing along.
Exhibit A: Jason Pierre Paul
Using this picture of Jason Pierre Paul might be an effective way to reinforce the message. The photo was taken right after the New York Giants all-pro lineman almost blew away his hand and NFL career in a backyard July 4 fireworks accident.