Fireworks Marred by Accident

Quick response by emergency crews averted disaster when fire broke out on the barge launching the Independence Day fireworks over Edgartown harbor.

"It could have been a big disaster. It wasn't. No one was hurt," Edgartown fire chief Antone A. Bettencourt said.

The accident began about 25 minutes into the half-hour, $16,000 show, just before a sequence of rockets introduced the grand finale. Apparently stray embers from fireworks rockets fell from the sky onto a pile of empty boxes and personal belongings near the launching area. Shooters from the Bay Fire Works Company lacked clear visibility because they were positioned behind the computer equipment that controls the fireworks.

The fire ignited a round of unlit fireworks slated for use during the finale. Eyewitnesses reported a sizable explosion.

Capt. Paul Bangs and crew member Denys Wortman of the 60-foot tugboat Sirius witnessed the fire and subsequent explosion from their position 300 yards upwind from the moored barge.

"I saw a little fire and it started to grow," Mr. Wortman said.

Several smaller boats positioned near the barge and manned by emergency personnel, rushed to the barge moments after the fire erupted to rescue the five pyrotechnicians on board.

Rescuers found the fireworks team hunkered down behind a protective steel plate near the stern of the barge, which shook from the concussions of exploding shells, eyewitnesses said. The fireworks crew crawled on their stomachs to get into a waiting boat piloted by Edgartown fireman Buck Martin.

The five fireworks shooters were transported to the Sirius. The tugboat then carried the shaken fireworks employees to Memorial Wharf in Edgartown where emergency medical technicians examined them.

Two crew members suffered abrasions during the rapid escape from the barge, but no treatment was needed. Police placed a barricade around Memorial Wharf to set up a staging area.

Edgartown police Sgt. Kenneth Johnson said officers cleared crowds from nearby streets without much difficulty. Confusion and concern spread through the crowds, but spectators followed the directions of officers.

Meanwhile, the Edgartown fire department ordered Engine 2 parked on Chappaquiddick Point aboard the On Time Ferry rush to the burning barge.

Chappaquiddick ferry owner Roy Hayes responded to the call for a ferry run. He quickly dispersed spectators watching the fireworks display from the ferry and loaded the fire engine.

Mr. Hayes said smoke near the barge made visibility difficult. Authorities confirmed 850 unexploded charges were located on the other side of the barge from the fire. The ferry moved in as close as possible to the burning vessel.

Firemen climbed on top of the truck and pumped more than 700 gallons of water through hoses before extinguishing the fire.

Chief Bettencourt said the fire was contained in an area about 15 by 20 feet square.

Firemen controlled the fire within 15 to 20 minutes. They then climbed aboard the barge to flood the barge with foam, Mr. Hayes said. A little over an hour later, harbor master boats led the fire engine aboard the Chappy ferry back to the inner harbor.

Emergency personnel continued work aboard the barge through the night. The Massachusetts bomb squad arrived at 1:30 a.m. to examine shells melted during the fire. The bomb squad planned to remove the unstable shells and set them off underground at the Edgartown landfill yesterday afternoon, sources said.

Authorities returned the barge to R.M. Packer's dock in Vineyard Haven harbor early Thursday morning to continue their investigations. Crews from the state Fire Marshal's office surveyed the barge to make sure all equipment complied with fire safety regulations. The state fire marshal's office scoured the barge to determine the exact cause of the fire. Coast Guard crews were scheduled to inspect the barge soon.

The accident does not mean the end of fireworks displays for next year, Chief Bettencourt said.

"It will affect how we do it. There will be more stringent regulations," he said.

After a full night of emergency response, Chief Bettencourt fought exhaustion but expressed appreciation for the courage and teamwork of his crew and other Island emergency personnel.

"It's discouraging," the chief said. "We take so many precautions, but there's always room for that one accident."