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Holiday marks four years since fatal fireworks explosion

Posted July 4, 2013

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— Fireworks are a Fourth of July tradition that usually bring feelings of happiness and excitement to those who revel in them.

For Nancy Brake, however, they bring memories of her older sister, Lisa Simmons.

"It was a big deal for her," Brake said. "She loved going to the displays, and, as a family, we would go each year."

Eventually, Brake's sister, Lisa Simmons, helped set up fireworks shows.

On the morning of July 4, 2009, she was preparing for a 40-minute display on Ocracoke Island with four other contractors for South Carolina-based Melrose South Pyrotechnics when fireworks inside their rental truck exploded, killing Simmons and three others and severely burning a fifth person.

Sister mourns loss on anniversary of fatal explosion Sister mourns loss on anniversary of fatal explosion

"It was just really devastating, unbelievable," Brake said. "One of those calls that you hope you never get."

According to the North Carolina Department of Labor, which investigated the explosion, the rental truck was serving as a temporary magazine holding about 680 pounds of pyrotechnics. Employees were inside the truck's bed, installing electric matches into the fuse ends of aerial shells, when the explosion happened.

Simmons, 41, had federal certification to handle fireworks, and another contractor, Terry Holland, 49, had led fireworks crews before. But the other crew members – Mark Hill, Charles Kirkland and Martez Holland – had no experience with fireworks.

State law at the time required that "experts" be responsible for fireworks but didn't define what an expert was. No certification or training was required for those setting off large-scale fireworks displays.

The Labor Department cited Melrose South, which paid $42,000 as part of a formal settlement agreement.

Melrose South has since changed its name to East Coast Pyrotechnics, according to an employee who answered a phone once assigned to Melrose South, and the company website lists new ownership. No one from East Coast Pyrotechnics, however, responded to requests for comment.

The explosion also brought about changes in state law requiring anyone using pyrotechnics for public events to complete a training course and receive an operator's license. The law also requires fireworks operators to get written permission from local authorities and to carry at least $500,000 in insurance coverage. Local authorities can impose stricter regulation on fireworks.

"If one person can be kept safe or safer because of Lisa's death, because of laws that they've passed, I could say it's worth it," Brake said.

Since 2009, Ocracoke Island has not had a community Independence Day fireworks display.

Brake said she'll keep going to shows and will always think of her sister.

"They just bring back a lot of good memories I had with her," Brake said.


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