A Night of Fun For Va. Family Ended in Horror

By Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 12, 2007

Three-year-old Max Hollis had been in a coma for more than a day. While he lay in the intensive care unit at one hospital, his mother was in the burn unit at another, and his father was napping near him after 36 sleepless hours.

To keep Max company, his uncle John Hollis was reading him the book "How Do Dinosaurs Say Good Night?" Max was trying to open his eyes, but he couldn't speak. "Do dinosaurs hug their mother and father before they go to bed?" his uncle read to him. Max nodded yes. "Do dinosaurs roar before they go to bed?" Max shook his head no.

"So that was a good sign," said his father, Andre Hollis, wiping away a tear.

Hollis's wife and son were severely injured doing what hundreds of thousands of others in the Washington region were doing on the Fourth of July: watching a fireworks display in their community. But as they gazed up at the sky in Vienna, an errant shell shot into the crowd toward them, exploding nearby.

Max sustained a severe brain injury and was released from Children's Hospital in the District on Saturday. His critically injured mother, Kathryn, 36, remains at Washington Hospital Center with second- and third-degree burns.

Fairfax County fire officials said 11 people were hurt on the baseball fields next to the fireworks launch site. Seven people required hospitalization, although the Hollises were the most seriously hurt.

The incident happened when a "grand finale" box of 25 mortar tubes, containing 25 fireworks shells, malfunctioned. Investigators said one of the shells exploded in its tube rather than being launched into the sky, causing the box to flip over and fire shells in many directions, including one into the gathering of several thousand spectators.

"It was a huge, huge explosion," said Patricia Daunas of Great Falls, who said she was about 30 feet from where the shell landed. That was immediately followed by silence, Daunas said. "It was very weird. I just heard one person scream," and then people moved aside as Fairfax firefighters began to treat the injured.

Fairfax Battalion Chief Keith Johnson happened to be on the scene as one of the county's fire marshals inspecting the fireworks set up by Schaefer Pyrotechnics. He estimated that he was about 75 feet from the shell that landed in the crowd.

"I immediately ran in to the site," Johnson said. "It was chaos."

He found the injured people, including the Hollises, and used his paramedic training to assess their wounds. Then, he said, "I went into incident command mode." And, in addition to requesting four ambulances, he called for a helicopter to fly Kathryn Hollis to a burn center.

Johnson and other paramedics from the nearby Vienna fire station began assessing the conditions of the other victims, and Johnson called for four more ambulances. Max was the first person transported to Inova Fairfax Hospital.

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