Officials Probe Fireworks Fire

Investigations continue as state and local fire officials pursue the exact cause of the fire and explosion that cut Edgartown's Independence Day fireworks display short last week.

Recent incidents are causing officials to take a closer look at the safety record of Bay Fireworks Company. The Edgartown accident is one of two fires that the 16-year-old, New York-based company experienced on Wed-nesday. Burning electrical cords during a display in Atlantic City resulted in a fire that raged until the early morning hours. In 1998, the Bay Fireworks Company failed to deliver a fireworks show in Falmouth after state fire code investigators cited the company with 11 violations.

The Edgartown fire department extinguished Wednesday's small fire within 20 minutes after Fire Engine 2 - positioned on Chappaquiddick Point - arrived at the barge, carried by On Time Ferry II. Nearby vessels rescued Bay Fireworks Company pyrotechnicians before any injuries resulted.

Initial reports blamed stray embers landing on empty boxes and personal items of the crew as the cause of the fire. State fire marshal Stephen Coan reiterated yesterday that embers came in contact with combustible material.

The state fire marshal's office, Edgartown fire chief Antone A. Bettencourt, the state bomb squad and the Coast Guard have worked since the early hours of Thursday to determine the precise cause of the fire. State authorities returned the barge, owned by R.M. Packer Company, to Vineyard Haven on Thursday. Authorities transported the vessel to New Bedford on Friday to continue investigations.

"There are potential violations regarding the fireworks company, but additional interviews will be needed before we make any final conclusions," Mr. Coan said.

Bay Fireworks Company president Bob Yale said he has not been notified of any violations or potential consequences.

"If I knew our company did wrong, I would step up. But I can't see anything that's gone wrong," said Mr. Yale, whose company delivered more than 200 fireworks displays nationwide last week.

According to reports from company shooters delivered to Mr. Yale following the incident, they noticed the ember falling on board the barge. They asked permission to extinguish the spark, but local fire officials advised them to steer clear, according to Mr. Yale's report. Mr. Yale suspects the resulting fire could have been prevented had his employees been allowed to put out embers when first spotted.

"There are fingers pointing all over the place. I don't know how many are pointing at us," he said.

Mr. Coan said yesterday it is too early to say whether his investigation will lead to a formal administrative hearing.

"I'm not prepared to make any recommendations at this point," he said, noting that his office will consider the history of the company and the operator in the state before making any conclusions about potential penalties. The fire marshal's office has the authority to revoke company licenses in serious cases and to issue reprimands for lesser violations.

The state bomb squad arrived on the scene at 1:30 a.m. Thursday to examine shells damaged during the fire. This weekend, they declared the shells to be stable and approved them for transport. Bay Fireworks Company will be responsible for the transportation.

The incident in Atlantic City Wednesday required a far more dangerous rescue effort, largely because of firefighters' inability to get close to the smoking barge. A small fire burned cables connected to the mortar tubes holding shells to be used during the grand finale, according to public reports.

Minutes after the show concluded, damaged cables unexploded ordnance erupted in all directions. After the unexpected encore, the fire quickly spread, reports said. Fortunately the pyrotechnicians on the barge remained in a protective metal box throughout the incident. Authorities waited for the fire to calm before moving a Coast Guard boat closer to rescue the crew. No major injuries occurred.

"We've basically concluded that the fire and incident were accidental," said Atlantic City fire official James Foley, who headed investigations.

The 1998 canceled fireworks show in Falmouth followed the 1997 Independence Day explosion in Falmouth. The 1997 incident resulted in several injuries as well as criminal charges being lodged against the fireworks operator from Atlas Pyrotechnics Company.

According to Mr. Yale, a state fire official told the Bay Fireworks Company operator that he had noticed several violations on board the barge. When the inspector refused to tell the operator which codes they violated, Mr. Yale advised his employee to cancel the show.

Fire officials cited 11 violations against Bay Fireworks Company including improperly spaced mortars, no wind meter and no necessary permit for the electric firing board.

Mr. Yale denies ever receiving official notification of the alleged violations and said no subsequent action resulted.

Mr. Coan said he did not know how long the investigation will last.

"I'm sad there's a dark cloud hanging over us right now," Mr. Yale said.