Fireworks That Injured 11 in Va. Are Investigated

By Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 6, 2007

Identical boxes of commercial fireworks made in China malfunctioned at six Fourth of July displays in Northern Virginia, including an accident in Vienna in which a misdirected shell injured 11 people, two seriously, officials said yesterday.

All six shows were operated by the same company, Schaefer Pyrotechnics of Ronks, Pa., and involved the same "cake boxes" of 25 three-inch mortar tubes. But fire officials in Fairfax County and Fairfax City, where a high-powered shell narrowly missed two Schaefer employees, said Schaefer did not appear to be at fault. The company declined to comment.

Investigators were trying to determine the exact origin of the fireworks yesterday. In Vienna and Fairfax City, the same thing happened: One shell exploded within a cake box, which tipped over and fired some rounds a few feet off the ground. A cake box is a container of five rows of five three-inch mortar tubes ignited by a single fuse.

Fire officials said similar incidents occurred at four other shows in Fairfax without injury -- Langley High School in McLean, International Country Club in Chantilly, Westwood Golf and Country Club in Vienna and Springfield Golf and Country Club. Organizers said they were unaware of any problems, but Fairfax fire spokesman Dan Schmidt said fire marshals filed reports on the malfunctioning boxes.

In Vienna, several thousand people were gathered near Vienna Elementary School on Center Street at 9:45 p.m., when the finale was just beginning, according to Fairfax Battalion Chief Keith Johnson. Schaefer's setup had been inspected twice, but the individual tubes holding the fireworks cannot be closely checked, Johnson said.

In the cake box, one shell "detonated before it came out of the mortar," Deputy Chief Dave McKernan said. He said the box "tipped over and displaced all the other mortars."

Assistant Fire Marshal Ronald Sheffield said there were at least 600 pounds of sandbags around the mortars, but the shells "blew out what was there."

Rounds flew in different directions. "There were several that were going haywire," said Brian Huber of Vienna. "Sparks were showering the ballfield, and on Waters Field there were sparks at ground level."

One round landed in a group of mostly youngsters, who ranged in age from an infant to an 11-year-old, Schmidt said. An adult was flown to the burn unit at Washington Hospital Center, and one of the children was taken to Inova Fairfax Hospital. Five others were hospitalized overnight, and four others treated at the scene. Eight were children.

Federal privacy laws prevented fire officials from releasing the victims' names, conditions, ages or home towns, Schmidt said.

Huber said the scene was mildly chaotic but not panicked, because most people didn't know what had happened.

Vienna has used Schaefer for 10 years or more without incident, town spokeswoman Marie Kisner said. Fairfax City has also used Schaefer for years, city officials said.

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