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Fireworks truck explodes on Ocracoke, three killed

Posted July 4, 2009
Updated July 5, 2009

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— A truck carrying fireworks for Ocracoke Island's July 4th celebration exploded near the South Ferry Terminal Saturday morning, leaving three people dead and injuring two others, according to Hyde County authorities.

A crew of four men and one woman was on or near the truck when the explosion occurred shortly after 9 a.m., Hyde County spokeswoman Jamie Tunnell said. A Melrose South Pyrotechnics crew was doing the town's fireworks, according to a company statement.

Ocracoke Island fireworks truck explosion_02 Three killed in fireworks truck explosion

Restaurant owner Scott McNally said he was about 100 feet from workers unloading fireworks from a parked truck when he heard an explosion that sounded like a plane crashing into a building.

"A half-second, it's beautiful fireworks. The next half-second, it's like this is, you know, a disaster," witness Bill Hopper said.

"It was like 40 minutes worth of fireworks going off in four seconds," said dock master Robert Raborn, who was about 200 yards away from the explosion.

Witnesses said the explosion shook homes and businesses and sent up a plume of smoke that could be seen for miles across the island.

Ocracoke Island fireworks truck explosion_05 Sky 5 hovers over Ocracoke Island damage

Three dead, two injured

One worker was killed instantly by the blast, and four others were airlifted to the North Carolina Jaycees Burn Center at UNC Hospitals and Pitt Memorial Hospital in Greenville.

Three doctors, volunteer nurses and emergency personnel from Hyde, Dare, Pender and Carteret counties rushed to the scene,  said Jane Hodges, the county's interim emergency manager.

A man, who had burns on 95 percent of his body, died in the afternoon, said UNC Hospitals spokesman Clinton Colmenares. A second patient died at Pitt Memorial late Saturday, Tunnell said.

A second victim worker at the Jaycees Burn Center suffered burns on 20 percent of his body, but was in fair condition, Colmenares said. The condition of the second patient at Pitt Memorial hasn't been released.

Dr. Prashant Shankar, of the Jaycee Burn Center, said fireworks burns are explosive, so their depth and intensity  are "a little more severe than the kind you’d see from like a gas grill burn."

Two volunteer firefighters were treated at local medical facilities for inhalation and exhaustion.

The cause of the explosion hasn't been determined.

Agents with the State Bureau of Investigation, federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and the Explosive Ordinance Disposal Company were investigating. A representative of Melrose South Pyrotechnics was assisting authorities.

Island slowly returning to normal

Residents and tourists on a July 4th holiday flooded to the village – the 15-mile-long island's only inhabited part – to see the site of the explosion first-hand.

"I thought the island was going to sink, there was so many people. Everybody came down here," witness Jean Sugg said.

Ferry service along the Cedar Island and Swan Quarter routes has been suspended until the federal Department of Homeland Security clears it to resume. Hours will be extended for those with reservations and in stand-by lanes, according to the state Department of Transportation.

The Hatteras-Ocracoke route was operating normally, and N.C. Highway 12, the main highway linking the barrier islands, had been reopened.

Residents said the explosion reminded them of how isolated the island is – on the southernmost tip of the Outer Bank, it's accessible only by ferry and private plane or boat and has little more than a small health center and volunteer fire department.

"How do you get help here? How do you get enough people out to fight something?" said Bob Chestnut, owner of the Ride the Wind surf shop. "That's the thing we're thinking about."

Pyrotechnic company fined in 2001 after worker's death

A 2001 accident that killed one worker and injured another led the South Carolina Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued citations and fines totaling more than $45,000 against Melrose South Pyrotechnic Inc., of Catawba, S.C.

According to the OSHA report, the employees were unpacking fireworks being returned from an Independence Day show. One employee saw an “orange flash” and yelled “run.” Both employees ran when the explosion occurred. The employee that spotted the “orange flash” suffered burns to his face but was not hospitalized. The second employee was struck by flying debris and killed.

Two Melrose workers were injured in 2007 during a Fourth of July fireworks show at Fort Stewart, Ga., according to the Associated Press.

Fire officials determined the explosion was an accident caused by a malfunctioning firework that detonated prematurely and started a chain reaction. Neither of the workers was hurt badly, officials said.

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