NORTH EAST — The 28th annual Salute to Cecil County Veterans fireworks show at the North East Community Park ended abruptly Wednesday night — approximately 10 minutes into the display — because a firework reportedly exploded near one of the certified professional handlers, seriously injuring his hand, according to the Maryland Office of the State Fire Marshal.
Emily Witty, a MOSFM public information officer, identified the injured worker only as a 49-year-old man, citing medical privacy laws.
The man, who had been listed in serious but stable condition, was discharged from the Curtis National Hand Center at MedStar Union Memorial Hospital in Baltimore on Thursday afternoon, according to Witty.
Witty reported that the accident occurred at 9:33 p.m. while the man and four other certified fireworks technicians were on a barge in the Northeast River, shooting the fireworks into the sky, as thousands of people at the adjacent town park and at other spots in and around downtown North East watched.
“He was lighting one of the fireworks and he accidentally lit a firework that was near him. It was not the one he intended to light. It ignited and exploded near him," Witty outlined, noting that the man was withdrawing his hand when the shell discharged. "His injuries were limited to his hand, but it was a pretty serious hand injury."
A North East Fire Company fire boat crew took the injured man from the barge to a docking area on the southern side of the Nauti Goose restaurant in the 300 block of Cherry Street, where he was transferred to a NEFC ambulance.
The ambulance crew drove the man to nearby North East High School on Irishtown Road, where a Maryland State Police helicopter crew had landed. From there, the helicopter crew flew the man to MedStar Union Memorial Hospital.
MOSFM detectives conducted an on-scene investigation, according to Witty.
“We inspected the barge and the setup of the fireworks, and everything met our codes. Nothing appeared to be wrong with the setup,” Witty said.
Howard F. Ewing, a NEFC spokesman, told the Cecil Whig that the accident resulted in the sudden end of the fireworks show.
“We (NEFC) did respond to an injury during a public fireworks display, and the fireworks display was terminated due to that injury,” Ewing said.
The fireworks display started at about 9:15 p.m., and each colorful burst that spread across the sky drew cheers from the hundreds of people who watched at the park while lounging in lawn chairs and lying on blankets.
Hundreds more watched the fireworks show from other vantage points in and around downtown North East. Meanwhile, an event was held in Charlestown, which is a few miles down the river, where people gathered to watch the fireworks display.
Approximately 10 minutes into the show, however, the shooting of fireworks from the barge stopped. After a few moments of inactivity, people in the crowd at the town park started making speculative comments aloud to each other.
“Maybe they're reloading,” one person said.
“They might be having technical problems,” another person said.
Another person said, "That can't be it," referring to the short length of the fireworks show.
Then the CVFC fire boat could be seen speeding across the river to waiting ambulances on Cherry Street.
Carrying coolers, blankets, lawn chairs and other items, hundreds of people who had staked out spots to watch the fireworks show started flooding out of the park.
“We can watch other fireworks shows. We really feel bad for the guy,” said Elkton-area resident Albert Startt, who had come to the park with his wife, Kathleen Startt, and several of their family members.
Kathleen Startt recapped, “We got to watch fireworks for five, maybe seven minutes, and then it just suddenly stopped. We had a good time while it lasted, but we knew something was wrong. I hope he (the victim) is all right.”
Amber Willey, a Newark, Del. resident, expressed a similar sentiment. She, too, had come to the park with family to watch the fireworks show.
“It's bizarre that it happened. You hear about people getting hurt with fireworks all the time, but it's strange to be there when it happens,” Willey said.
She added, “When I heard that there had been an accident, I started reaching out to my first responder friends to see if he (the victim) was still alive. I was concerned. We can always watch other fireworks. Our thoughts are with him.”
In a Facebook post Thursday morning, Salute to Cecil County Veterans organizers thanked those who responded to the accident as well as those who volunteered to coordinate the hours-long annual event.
"We are happy to report that his injuries have been tended to, and he is being released to head home now. Actually, he asked if he could work another show planned somewhere else tonight, so he's doing pretty good, all things considered," the organization wrote.
The mishap came at the end of the day's activities, which included military displays, live music, food, raffles, face painting, sand art, inflatables, a rubber ducky race and more.
Meanwhile, there will be a private dinner for veterans and local officials by invitation only at the North East VFW Post 6027 at 6:30 p.m. The dinner is being paid for and officially hosted by the Military Order of the Purple Heart Chapter 703, according to Gene Daley, commander of the North East VFW.
A ceremony, conducted by veterans and active military members with the help of Boy Scout members, featured the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, raising of the American flag, singing of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and remarks from Cecil County Executive Alan McCarthy, North East Mayor Robert McKnight, and Maj. Gen. Mitchell Kilgo, the new senior commander of Aberdeen Proving Ground.
The ceremony also recognized the 75th anniversary of D-Day, which occurred on June 6, in remembrance of the Allies who landed on the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944, in Operation Overlord during World War II.
Gene Daley, who is also a former president of the nonprofit, said he has been impressed with the organization’s mission of putting on an event that honors the veterans of Cecil County in conjunction with Independence Day.
“It’s not just a fireworks show. It’s more than that,” Daley said. “We recognize the veterans that throughout the history of our nation have been able to provide us the freedom and the ability to have fireworks shows and to honor those veterans and to make a special event out of that.”
It unfortunately marks the second consecutive year that the grand finale fireworks show did not go as planned, as last year a rainstorm prevented it from being fired.
Historically, the nonprofit has rented a barge for each show, but eventually it became difficult to find one. Instead, the organization started saving up money to build their own barge, which cost $55,000, according to officials.