July 2,  2010

One year later, Ocracoke remembers the horrific
fireworks explosion that killed four people


 It was a clear morning in Ocracoke. Breezes were light, and it was already near 80 degrees as workers bustled in and out of a white Ryder truck filled with fireworks near the south ferry docks in the village. Firefighters preparing for the July Fourth show planned for that evening were in good humor as they hosed down the grounds along the parking lot and the Pamlico Sound.  

Before going in to work at about 9 a.m., Sharon Justice paused outside her adjacent office at the ferry dock to admire the rainbow created by the spray.

A moment later she saw what many say was the most horrific thing that has ever happened on Ocracoke Island -- the fireworks truck blew up.  

“I was right there and watched it explode,” Justice recalled this week about the tragedy last Independence Day that claimed the lives of four pyrotechnics workers and severely injured a fifth. “I was right there at the kitchen window.”

Justice, lead worker with the North Carolina Ferry Division, said she and her boss David Styron were aghast at what they saw happen over a matter of seconds.  

“We were looking out of the window and we saw some colored sparkles floating around the truck and shooting towards the building. Then smoke started coming out of the truck. The manager said, ‘I think that thing’s going to explode.’”

Fireworks then shot from the exploding truck toward the ferry division office across the parking lot from the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching building. Justice said she and Styron immediately ran outside to move vehicles. Fire had engulfed the shoreline behind the truck parked in the middle of the center’s lot. The smell of gunpowder and burning trees filled the air, and fireworks were going off like machine guns. People were running in all directions trying to help the victims and to put out fires that seemed to have ignited everywhere.

Terry Holland, 51, Lisa Simmons, 42, and Charles Kirkland Jr., 49, all of Goldsboro, and Mark Curtis Hill, 21, of Wayne County, who were inside the truck when it exploded, died of their injuries.

Martez Holland, then 27, of Goldsboro, suffered burns to his face and hands but having been at the rear of the truck, he was able to escape with his life. He was released after weeks of treatment at the North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center.  

Two firefighters suffered minor injuries.

The ferry and NCCAT buildings were saved.

One blessing is that when the truck blew, Justice said, there were only two people in the stacking lane for the Cedar Island-Swan Quarter ferry, and they were quickly relocated, unharmed. Ferry division staff helped keep curiosity-seekers away from the scene. The island’s 800 year-round population had swelled that holiday weekend to its capacity of about 10,000.

Helicopters landed to transport the victims. Firefighters with the Ocracoke Volunteer Fire Department, assisted by neighboring Hatteras Island fire departments, struggled to extinguish the blazes. People from all over the village --- including a few visitors who were medical professionals ---  swarmed to the scene to help.

But Justice said that even with the cushion of time, she can barely stand to recall much of what she witnessed that day.

“I don’t really want to think about that,” she said. “It was not a pretty sight.  It was very emotional for a while. It was tough.”
Justice said she is glad the island is not having a fireworks display this year --- partly because of new state regulations that require more training but mostly because islanders don’t have the stomach for it.

“It was a horrible time, but maybe everybody will heal,” she said, her voice trailing off.  When the bad memories fade, she added, islanders might want the July Fourth fireworks back.

“Personally, I hope they don’t. It was nice and all that, but after you go through that, you don’t want to see it again.”

Kenny Ballance, supervisor of the Ocracoke district of the National Park Service, said he knew three of the victims who had worked on the island’s fireworks displays in previous years.
Ballance said he was about to go over to the site when the phone rang, and he was delayed.  He heard the explosion from his office.

“By the time I got over there, the younger guy, they were bringing him from the water area,” he said. “He wasn’t dead at that time.  But I felt like I needed to stay with him because I knew he was about to go.”

At Ballance’s advice, park staff---including himself ---took advantage of counseling offered by the Park Service to help deal with the trauma.

“It’s something that, even after a year, you have flashbacks about it,” he said.

Three Park Service law enforcement rangers under Ballance were given merit awards for their service during the crisis, and two Coast Guard personnel were also recently honored for their service.

But Ballance said that the entire community shined in its ability to come together in coping with the immediate nightmare, in reaching out to the families of the victims, and in helping each other through the awful impact of the tragedy on the islanders.

“It’s amazing because Ocracoke is a tight-knit community, and it takes a situation like this . . . It just made them see how quick life can be taken away from you. I think it made the community a lot closer.”

Instead of fireworks in the village this year, there will be live music presented in celebration of the nation’s birthday. A moment of silence will be held after the parade in memory of the victims of the explosion. Some of their family members may attend, Ballance said.

Ballance said that there was agreement about not holding fireworks this Fourth.

“I think the community felt like there has to be a little break for a year or two,” he said.

A memorial walkway at NCCAT from the ferry dock to the front of the campus has been created to honor the victims of the explosion, said Lauren Baker, NCCAT director of operations.

Baker said she was outside walking toward the campus when the truck exploded.  She said she does not like to talk about that day.

“It was a horrendous thing,” she said, adding that she was not speaking on behalf of NCCAT. “It is kind of hard, even though it’s a year later, it’s one of those things . . .”
But the outcome has not been all bad, she said.

“The islanders have embraced the families of those killed,” she said. “I think . . . they found a special bond.”

Stricter state regulations for firework exhibits have been put in place as a result of the Ocracoke explosion. Now, anyone working on the displays must meet training standards and follow more safety protocols.

“It was a tragic accident, there’s no way around it,” Baker said. “But I think there’s been some positive things that have come out of it.”
On Dec. 11, the state North Carolina Department of Labor fined the fireworks company Melrose South Pyrotechnics of Catawba, S.C. a total of $44,800 for nine serious violations, including allowing the use of potentially spark-producing tools near where explosives were stored.

An appeal was filed with the department on March 24, 2010, said Chanel Brown, statistical research assistant for the Labor Department. A hearing with the North Carolina Safety and Health Review Commission has not yet been scheduled, she said.

John Brooke, a Muncie, Ind., pyrotechnics attorney representing Melrose, said that the company is challenging the fines and the findings in the citations.

“We don’t believe that the citations are appropriate for what occurred in Ocracoke," he said. “They actually could lead to more problems.”

For instance, he said, one citation said that the workers needed to wear static-guard heel straps, which have tethers attached to a rod that is grounded. But while such equipment may be justified in a stationary manufacturing job, he said, it could cause entanglement with workers who move around a lot. Also, he said that static electricity is not a problem in settings like Ocracoke where the workers were assembling the fireworks.

Brooke said he has no knowledge of any lawsuits against Melrose related to the Ocracoke explosion. He also said that whatever settlements that were made would have been handled by state worker’s compensation insurance.

Sid Hassell, the attorney for Hyde County, also said is not aware of any legal action involving Hyde County stemming from the accident.

Fire officials ruled the explosion accidental. Investigators concluded that electric ignitors that were being improperly inserted into the explosives while workers were inside the truck likely contributed to the cause of the explosion.

Encircled by shimmering Silver Lake and the vast Pamlico Sound, the site reveals only a hint of the dramatic incendiary it became that morning with some shriveled shrubs along the shoreline. No marker indicates where the vehicle exploded and four lives were lost.

For a while, Justice said, sightseers would come out and take pictures of the empty spot in the parking lot, which had been cleaned completely within a week after the explosion.

“We were asked about it a lot after that,” she said. Now most visitors pass by the site, oblivious of the horror that villagers want to forget.

“If you didn’t know,” Justice said, “you wouldn’t know.”

(Catherine Kozak, a former reporter for The Virginian-Pilot in the Nags Head office, is now a freelance writer for The Island Free Press and other publications.)

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