The lights went out for Ray Criblear late Monday, when a 3-inch mortar firework he set off rocketed into his face.
After it struck, he lay horribly wounded on the lawn of his Levittown home in Middletown. He was barely alive. His wife and neighbors rushed to him. He was taken to St. Mary Medical Center in Langhorne. By 11:30 p.m., he was dead.
If good is to come from this senseless death, it is tightening Pennsylvania’s laughably loose laws regarding fireworks. The laws allow out-of-state residents to purchase more powerful fireworks, but not Pennsylvania residents, who are restricted to smaller explosives, such as firecrackers and sparklers. Not that it stops committed merrymakers from obtaining them.
Since state law changed in 2004, the result is the promiscuous use of fireworks by neighborhood amateurs, who seem to graduate to more powerful bombs each year. Who has not noticed the number of fireworks stores, and the yearly increase of pops, bangs and booms as July 4 approaches, and in the days after?
What amateurs and their captive neighbors don’t realize is the imminent danger that big fireworks pose.
“Very dangerous and very illegal. I don’t even know where he would have gotten something like that,” said Larry Nagazina, a professional pyrotechnician and proprietor of Fireworks by Nagazina in Coopersburg, Lehigh County.
Pennsylvania law forbids unlicensed amateurs from having any firework that shoots 8 feet or higher, he said. A 3-inch mortar, such as that which Ray Criblear used, shoots 210 feet in seconds, before exploding in colorful sparks or “stars,” as professionals call them. “A 3-inch mortar is the size of a baseball and has the power of a hand grenade. As soon as you touch the (flame to the) fuse, it’s up. He probably didn’t know that,” Nagazina said. He said handling such powerful fireworks in Pennsylvania requires certification by local, state and federal authorities. This includes studying pyrotechnics, written tests, apprenticeships at five to six professional fireworks shows, fingerprinting by the state police and an interview with a representative of the U.S. Dept. of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Safety precautions are strict.
“Even with a 3-inch mortar, we are required to have a minimum fallout zone of 350 feet from spectators,” Nagazina said. Shock-proof, high-density polyurethane tubes from which the mortars fire are affixed to reinforced metal racks, which are inspected by a fire marshal prior to firing. Criblear, according to eyewitnesses, used PVC pipe and a bucket to set off the mortar that killed him.
Nagazina said a suburban street, where the incident occurred, is the worst place to set off fireworks. “The (sparks) can fall on houses, starting fires. Field fires, too,” he said. Then there are the injuries. Fireworks injuries are identical to battlefield wounds: Missing fingers, holes in hands, burns, missing eyes, and temporary deafness.
Dr. Omid Rowshan, chairman of emergency medicine at Lower Bucks Hospital in Bristol Township, said the destructive force of fireworks is underestimated. “Over the last 19 years (at Lower Bucks Hospital) we have had significant blast injuries to the hands where the reparative process is beyond the scope of care here,” he said. “In one case, a guy lost his hand. These are full-fledged blast injuries. “It’s truly like a hand grenade is exploding in your hands, literally,” Dr. Roshawn said. “We see this kind of injury come in, and sometimes folks are intoxicated. For a good number of folks, their faculties are numbed by alcohol.”
What to do? We can harangue politicians to do something about restricting fireworks. We can unfairly blame the local police, who cannot possibly track and fine every knucklehead setting off illegal fireworks.
Really, the responsibility falls to each of us to discourage neighbors who set off anything bigger than firecrackers. It may be an uncomfortable position to take. On the other hand, telling a neighbor to take it somewhere else could save a life. It could spare your neighborhood the horror and heartache that Ray Criblear’s neighborhood presently endures.