Families File Suit Over 2007 Fireworks Accident in Vienna

Andre Hollis's wife and sons were severely injured in the Vienna fireworks accident on the Fourth of July in 2007. Another family was also injured.
Andre Hollis's wife and sons were severely injured in the Vienna fireworks accident on the Fourth of July in 2007. Another family was also injured. (2007 Photo By Carol Guzy -- The Washington Post)
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By Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 5, 2009

For several years, Fairfax County fire marshals warned Vienna officials that shooting off large fireworks in the middle of town was a bad idea and even tried to add safety regulations that would push spectators farther from the launch zone, according to town documents.

But Vienna officials successfully pushed back against new regulations and continued to stage their Fourth of July shows, the documents show. Then, in 2007, a mortar shell rocketed into a crowd surrounding the Waters Field baseball diamonds and seriously injured a group of spectators.

Two families that live just outside Vienna have sued the town and some of its officials, Fairfax County's fire marshals, the show operator, Schaefer Pyrotechnics, and the company alleged to have imported the fireworks, Huisky Trading.

"My family is still recovering from traumatic physical and psychological injuries," said Andre Hollis, whose wife and two children were injured. "For many of their wounds, there will be no full recovery."

Vienna again is fighting back. The town says it has no liability for the incident and has cross-sued Schaefer, saying it had agreed to insure the show and hold Vienna blameless. It also claims immunity as a governmental entity.

"We complied with all state, local and national standards for firing fireworks, and we would not have proceeded if that weren't true," Vienna Town Attorney Steven Briglia said. "Just because we have insurance and we feel bad somebody was hurt doesn't mean the town has an obligation."

After the 2007 incident, the Fairfax fire department, whose marshals handle inspection and permits for every fireworks show in the county, doubled the required distance between spectators and the launch site. Fire spokesman Dan Schmidt declined to discuss specific allegations in the lawsuits while they are pending but said, "Our number one priority is for the safety of the spectators."

Vienna officials staged a laser light show last year. They plan to resume fireworks this year, launching them from Southside Park, just north of Interstate 66.

The lawsuits claim that during the 2007 show, a three-inch shell skimmed just above the ground and struck Michael Ku, who was standing with his 6-year-old son, Conley. It then bounced to the ground and exploded next to Kathryn Hollis, who was sitting with her 3-year-old son, Max, in her lap and 7-year-old son, Alex, standing next to her.

According to their lawsuits, the Kus suffered severe burns, perforated eardrums and puncture wounds from the shell's debris, and the Hollises suffered disfiguring burns and traumatic brain injuries from the blast.

Vienna's fireworks show was one of six in Northern Virginia that night in which "cake boxes" of three-inch mortars exploded, launching shells at dangerous angles instead of into the sky. All the shows were run by Schaefer, of Ronks, Pa. No one was hurt at the other five shows, where spectators were much farther from the launch sites than were those in Vienna, though a shell did zip between two Schaefer employees in Fairfax City and slam into a fence, causing the rest of that show to be canceled.

Schaefer owner Kimmel Schaefer did not return a call seeking comment. The company has reported that it obtained the cake boxes, containing 25 shells each, from Huisky Trading Co. of Great Neck, N.Y.

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