The widow of a local firefighter who died from an explosion last year while preparing fireworks for Roswell’s annual Fourth of July celebration and seven other fire department personnel have filed a lawsuit against the city and a fireworks distributor.
Attorneys representing the seven fire department personnel who are plaintiffs, and Reba Stroble — the wife of firefighter Jeff Stroble, a fire apparatus operator with the department who died from injuries sustained in the explosion — filed the complaint Tuesday in New Mexico’s 5th Judicial District Court in Chaves County.
The city of Roswell and Flying Phoenix Fireworks, a Wyoming-based business that supplied the fireworks and electronic matches, were both named as defendants, according to the complaint filed in district court.
In the complaint, the plaintiffs request the court grant them a civil jury trial, compensatory damages for past and future medical expenses, pain, suffering, emotional distress and disfigurement. Wrongful death damages are also sought for the estate of Jeff Stroble.
The seven firefighters are among 12 who sustained injuries in a June 5, 2019 explosion at a storage unit south of the city while preparing fireworks for the annual Fourth of July celebration.
According to the complaint, the explosion was the accidental result of an electronic match that spontaneously ignited and caused a nearby fireworks shell to explode, which then caused the rest of the fireworks to explode within the storage unit.
Stroble and Robert “Hoby” Bonham, who was then a firefighter with the department and is among the plaintiffs, sustained burns and other serious injuries. Both men were transported to a hospital in Lubbock for treatment.
Bonham was released from the hospital in June 2019, but Stroble died in the hospital July 21 while still receiving treatment. City officials following the explosion said the other 10 firefighters received treatment for minor injuries, though the complaint says injuries from the explosion included burns and hearing loss.
The city unnecessarily placed the safety of fire personnel at risk by requiring them to prepare and put on the fireworks show, according to the complaint.
“The city of Roswell expected these injuries to occur, or utterly disregarded the consequences of requiring firefighters to prepare and put on the fireworks show despite knowledge of the lack of qualifications of the firefighters who sought to have qualified pyrotechnic experts operate the fireworks show,” the complaint states.
Todd Wildermuth, public information officer for the city of Roswell, said Wednesday the city does not comment on pending litigation.
Before 2019, the Roswell Fire Department asked that the city hire contractors trained in fireworks to put on the show because personnel with the department did not have the qualifications.
“The fire department made it clear to the city of Roswell that forcing its firefighters to manage the pyrotechnics show was dangerous and put firemen at serious risk of injury,” the complaint states.
After hiring a third party vendor in 2018 for the fireworks show, the complaint alleges that in 2019, the city tasked the Roswell Fire Department with handling all aspects of the show and made them do it while on duty.
The complaint alleges that Flying Phoenix was “willful, reckless or wanton” and that the plaintiffs warrant an additional award of punitive damages because they had an obligation to use care to avoid a foreseeable risk of injury caused by either the condition of the fireworks and electronic matches or the manner in which they were used.
Flying Phoenix, the complaint states, did not adequately warn the firefighters the fireworks and electronic matches could spontaneously ignite and injure an individual. The company also allegedly did not provide adequate instructions for the use of the fireworks and electronic matches to avoid injury caused by spontaneous ignition.
A representative for Flying Phoenix Fireworks said he did not know of the suit and declined to comment further.
Breaking news reporter Alex Ross can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext, 301, or email@example.com.