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July 07. 2012 11:52PM

Reloadable mortars 'a factor' in Pelham fireworks accident

Reloadable mortar fireworks that New Hampshire made legal last year were involved in a Pelham fireworks mishap that left 13 people injured last week, according to a fire investigator.

“They were a factor in that incident,” said state Deputy Fire Marshal Rob Farley, whose office is investigating the accident.

Legislators last year changed state law to allow for more types of fireworks to be sold.

“There’s no doubt in my mind it increased the risk to potential users because some of the things banned before because of safety reasons were allowed to be used — the most notable of which was reloadable mortars,” Farley said.

A family gathering on Dodge Road on Tuesday turned chaotic when 13 people, ranging from age 8 months to 58 years old, were injured after fireworks stored on a deck caught fire, authorities said. The injured included a 2-year-old boy who is hospitalized in a medically induced coma.

Farley said reloadable mortars are more dangerous than one-time-use mortars because a person has to stand over and reload a tube. Cardboard from the tube can degrade from multiple firings, and embers can flake off, lighting the charge prematurely, he said.

“As soon as you drop it in, the lit charge takes the shell and lifts it out of the tube, and you’re standing over it,” Farley said.

The state Fire Marshal’s Office removed more than 90 boxes of unused fireworks from the home Wednesday. John Raymond, the office’s assistant director, said the fireworks were readily available in stores, and he found no restricted items.

A family member of those injured told the Boston Globe that “the whole thing went off like a bomb.”

Christina Katsikas, president of the New Hampshire Fireworks Association, said fireworks that people can purchase at stores are laboratory tested and shouldn’t have produced such an explosion.

“Consumer fireworks don’t go off like a bomb,” Katsikas said.

Durham Fire Chief Corey Landry, past president of the New Hampshire Association of Fire Chiefs, said he backs a ban on fireworks for personal use, but doesn’t expect one to spring up following the headlines over the Pelham accident.

“I don’t see any politician is going to move to make selling fireworks illegal in New Hampshire because it’s too much of a business out there,” Landry said. “They’re not going to close businesses.”

The state Department of Safety lists 28 fireworks stores in 16 communities: Londonderry, Belmont, Newport, Amherst, Rindge, Seabrook, Bow, Hinsdale, Tilton, Somersworth, Hooksett, Epping, Tamworth, Bethlehem, Epsom and Winchester.

But Landry hopes to stop the proliferation of fireworks.

“Let’s find some happy middle ground; let’s stop expanding the fireworks list,” he said. “The permissible fireworks have expanded beyond what the amateur should deal with.”

Shannon Bettencourt, spokesman for House Speaker William O’Brien, said residents shouldn’t expect quick action to consider modifying the fireworks law.

“We are unaware of any legislators that are interested in filing legislation regarding the use of fireworks,” she said in an email. “That may be because it is still too soon, and we haven’t heard any results from the investigation into this accident. That may change once we get more information on what happened in this situation, but right now we are not aware of any desire to make changes from any legislators.”

New Hampshire lets communities decide whether to ban consumer fireworks possession, sales and use. More than 50 New Hampshire towns have no restrictions on consumer fireworks that the state allows, according to a list compiled by the Fire Marhal’s Office. More than a dozen others ban such fireworks, including Manchester and Nashua. More than 125 communities didn’t notify the office of how they treat fireworks.

The state still bans firecrackers and bottle rockets, while the federal government prohibits cherry bombs and M-80s, Farley said.

Last month, Milford repealed a town ordinance requiring residents to get a permit.

“There were many people who were setting them off anyway, and the ordinance wasn’t being enforced,” selectmen Chairman Gary Daniels said. “There are many ways in life that we can be hurt, but we as a government can’t control all of them.”

Massachusetts lawyer Mark Darling, who represents the Pelham homeowners, Chris and Jeannie Pappathan, last week said the accident happened when a properly lit firework went astray into an area where other fireworks were being stored. All the fireworks were lit carefully in the back yard area, and nothing was lit on the deck, he said.

The accident “happened in a heartbeat,” he told the New Hampshire Union Leader last week. “This was a tragic accident, and nothing more than that.”

Katsikas, who owns Hooksett Fireworks, said she and an industry lobbyist were among those involved in working on the mortars bill, which she said gave consumers more choices.

“I was there when they were crossing stuff out and adding stuff in and fixing this and fixing that,” she said. “It was like writing the Constitution all over again.”

Farley said he hopes the Pelham accident will prompt legislators to review the issue.

“If anything, I hope this garners a more comprehensive discussion on whether we need ... to relook at what’s permitted in the state of New Hampshire and what isn’t,” he said.

The law’s prime sponsor, Rep. Lars Christiansen, R-Hudson, whose district includes Pelham, declined to discuss what role he played in changing the law until he learned more about the Pelham incident.

“There’s too many questions,” he said. “If everything is consumer (fireworks), they are within the law. All that stuff is tested even before it comes into this country.”

Asked why he wanted to expand the state’s fireworks law, Christiansen said: “Constitutents wanted them.”

Reporter Paul Feely contributed to this story. Mike Cousineau may be reached at mcousineau@unionleader.com.


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