The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

‘Light Fuse and Get Away’

Posted on | July 6, 2021 | Comments Off on ‘Light Fuse and Get Away’

Every year, the Fourth of July yields a certain number of tragic injuries caused by fireworks — or, to be more specific in most cases, injuries caused by idiots who disregard the warning labels on fireworks.

The most common serious injuries nowadays seem to be caused by idiots mishandling mortars. If you aren’t familiar with consumer fireworks, a very popular item is the reloadable 1.75-inch mortar, sometimes called “artillery shells,” or just “shells.” Typically, these come in a package of six, 12 or 24 shells, with one, two or four mortar tubes packed into each kit. You can also build racks of mortar tubes, enabling you to fuse together a barrage of shells without having to re-load, but your typical consumer just uses the tubes that come in the package.

A 24-shell consumer mortar kit with 4 tubes.

A 15-shot mortar rack, fused and ready.

Over the years, my sons and I have fired many hundreds of these shells and never had a problem, because we use mortar racks that are connected by timed fuses to finale boards, so by the time the shells start firing, we’re safely back in the spectator area — no problem. The worst mishap we’ve had was what’s called a “flower pot,” where the shell explodes inside the tube; this usually happens because of a malfunction with the “lift” charge (which launches the shell out of the tube). The other thing that can cause a “flower pot” is when someone accidentally loads the shell upside down, with the lift charge firing upward.

Now, if you’re using mortar racks, the result of a “flower pot” can be very bad — it can blow your rack apart, so that the chained fuse is lighting off shells in tubes scattered all over the ground, with stuff firing sideways and causing havoc. We build our racks pretty solid, however, so that the one time we had a “flower pot,” it blew out the mortar tube but didn’t break the whole rack, thank God. On the other hand, imagine what happens if you’re single-firing mortar shells out of the tubes that come with the kit and get a “flower pot.” It can be catastrophic.

“Light fuse and get away” — this warning appears on the labels of all consumer fireworks, and it’s there for a good reason. When you’re dealing with explosive items, proximity matters, but some people don’t take that label warning seriously enough. For example:

A 13-year-old boy was seriously injured by a firework that struck his face on Long Island late Sunday night, police said.
The victim was with a group of teens who were setting off fireworks outside of a Deer Park home at about 10:50 p.m. when a mortar exploded in his face, according to police.
The boy, who was not identified, was taken to Stony Brook University Hospital with serious injuries.
Investigators are trying to determine how the teens obtained the fireworks.

For example:

A man suffered a severe traumatic face injury in Waukegan while lighting off fireworks on Saturday night.
The man, who is in his 20s, was shooting off fireworks around 10 p.m. at a home on North County Street. He was hit in the face with a mortar-type firework, the fire department said.
He was first taken to Vista East Medical Center and then flown by helicopter to Lutheran General Hospital.

For example:

A man has died in a tragic firework accident after a mortar shell exploded inside of a firework tube, sending shrapnel into the man’s body and killing him on-site.
The incident occurred at approximately 12:20 a.m. on Sunday, July 4, in Salamonie Township — about 95 miles northeast of Indianapolis — in Huntington County, Indiana. First responders were called to the scene where a man was injured while setting off fireworks, according to a statement from the Huntington County Coroner’s Office.
When authorities arrived, they say they found the victim, 41-year-old Steven E. Sims of Hartford City, Indiana, with critical injuries to his abdomen.
The Huntington County Coroner said lifesaving efforts were immediately attempted to save Sims’ life, but he ultimately succumbed to his injuries and was pronounced dead at the scene of the accident.

Without knowing the details of what happened in each of these incidents, I’ll tell you that the probable cause of the mortar-to-the-face injuries was that the victims were carelessly reloading “hot” tubes. See, after you a fire a shell, the lift charge usually leaves a few sparks down in the tube, and if you immediately re-load the tube, these sparks can ignite the shell while you’re still loading it and — BOOM! — there goes your face.

The way to avoid that happening is to shake out the tube after each shell, and give it a minute or so to cool off before you re-load, but too many people never even think of this risk or how to avoid it. In the case of the Indiana man who died of abdomen injuries from a mortar explosion, I’ll guess that was a “flower pot” caused by inserting the shell into the tube upside down, and that he did not “light fuse and get away.”

See, that’s what I mean when I say “proximity matters.” Standing right next to a mortar is just not smart. The fuse on a consumer shell usually has a four- or five-second burn time, which is enough time for even a slow person to get 50 or 100 feet away before it fires and yet, it is apparently common practice for people to stand just a few feet away while firing these things, which means accidents can be fatal.

There is no such thing as risk-free fireworks, of course, and in a country where many thousands of people celebrate Fourth of July by lighting off fireworks, some number of injuries are inevitable. But common-sense precautions — e.g., “light fuse and get away” — can reduce the risk.

Don’t be stupid. The penalty for stupidity can be death.



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