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State report: Fireworks explosion ruled accidental

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Lisa Dunlap Photo The debris from the concrete building on the Roswell International Air Center property where the June 5 explosion occurred is seen in this photo taken two days later.

The June 5 fireworks explosion that killed one Roswell firefighter and seriously injured another has been ruled an accident by fire investigators, according to a state report, and the city has stated it could face litigation over the situation.

Investigators with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), the New Mexico State Police and the New Mexico State Fire Marshal’s Office began on-site investigations June 6.

Their work included interviewing the 12 firefighters involved in the incident, examining the building and debris at 1004 W. Hobson Road — inside the fence of the Roswell International Air Center — where the explosion occurred, and studying photographs of the scene.

The incident had occurred as Roswell Fire Department personnel were packaging fireworks for the city’s annual Fourth of July celebration, which the fire department had organized for most years during the past two decades.

“Upon conclusion of the investigation, the cause of the explosion/fire is accidental,” states the Fire Marshal’s Office report, dated Aug. 14.

The report is described as a supplement to the findings of the ATF, one of the lead agencies in the investigation.

“Based on multiple witness statements, an explosion occurred while the firefighters were fusing the aerial shells with electric matches,” the report states. “The initial explosion caused other explosions, leading to the explosion/consumption of all the firework shells inside the structure. The build-up of pressure from the exploding shells caused the walls of the structure to be blown out.”

The report states that the exploding shells “functioned as designed.”

Twelve firefighters were in the concrete building on June 5 when the explosion occurred. Ten had minor injuries and were treated on scene or at local hospitals and released. Hoby Bonham, 36, and Jeff Stroble, 46, were seriously injured and flown to a Lubbock hospital, where Stroble succumbed to his injuries on July 21. Bonham was able to return home June 29 to continue outpatient treatment and recovery.

A city of Roswell spokesman issued the following statement when asked for a comment on the report.

“The city of Roswell has been formally notified of possible litigation related to the fireworks accident in early June,” Todd Wildermuth stated in an email. “Under that circumstance, the city will withhold any comment or discussion regarding topics potentially connected with the accident and possible litigation.”

Robert Sanchez, a 19-year firefighter who works with the Bernalillo County Fire Department and serves as president of the New Mexico Professional Firefighters Association, an advocacy group, said that the association wants all firefighters to know that they should not work with fireworks without the proper training and licenses.

“Our members do a great job on responding to calls,” he said. “And when you call 911 for a medical call or a fire, you expect professionals to go and respond to the call. However, in our academies, we are not trained in pyrotechnics or how to set up fireworks for small municipalities or even any towns.”

The state report indicates that one firefighter told investigators that the group had been working for about three hours and was close to finishing the work when the incident occurred at about 12:15 p.m.

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 311, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.