Playing with fire
July 4 brings on the blasts, but danger can't be taken lightly

Tuesday, June 30, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Dan Stacey of Delhi Township has some fun with sparklers, novelty fireworks that are legal to use in Ohio.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
| ZOOM |
It happened 36 years ago, but Max Schellman clearly remembers. The West Chester man was 13, hanging with a buddy in his hometown of Jefferson City, Mo. The friend would drop a lit firecracker into a pop bottle, and the two would watch the firecracker explode.

"Do that often enough, end eventually the soda bottle explodes as well, and that's what happened," says Mr. Schellman, now 49 and a human resources manager at Procter and Gamble.

The exploding bottle that morning threw pieces of glass at his face. One shard -- perhaps from the bottom of the bottle -- hit his right eye. It hurt. Some clear fluid leaked out.

Fireworks once called "Class C Common fireworks" are now called "Consumer" fireworks. They include cone fountains, cylindrical fountains, Roman candles, sky rockets, firecrackers with no more than 30 mg of powder, illuminating torches, party poppers, mines and shells, helicopter-type rockets, certain sparklers and revolving wheels.

Ohio: Allows purchase of only sparklers and other novelty fireworks. Other types of fireworks can be purchased as long as people agree not to use them in the state of Ohio. Violation is a misdemeanor, punishable by up to $1,000 and six months in jail.

Kentucky: Allows purchase and use only of some or all types of Consumer fireworks. Violation is a misdemeanor, punishable by up to $1,000 and six months in jail.

Indiana: Allows purchase of some or all types of consumer fireworks. Other fireworks can be purchased as long as people agree not to use them in the state of Indiana. Violation is a misdemeanor, punishable by up to $5,000 and one year in jail.

Your city or village may have stricter laws. Check with your local police or fire department. Some types, such as M-80s, cherry bombs and large aerial tube shells, are banned by federal law.

When he went home for lunch, he told his parents about the explosion. And he told them his vision was blurry.

By that afternoon, he had been seen by two specialists and scheduled for emergency eye surgery -- seven stitches to repair the cornea that had been ruptured by the bottle's impact. He spent six weeks in the hospital with a patch on his eye.

"Not a fun way for a 13-year-old to spend a summer."

Mr. Schellman shares his story now to alert parents and children to the potential dangers of firecrackers, bottle rockets, sparklers and the like.

"I was fortunate," he says. "I got to the doctor right away, he saw what the problem was, and I had surgery right away. If there had been much delay at all, I could have lost the eye or would have been blind in one eye."

Even today, his right eye is weaker than his left, and he's worn glasses since the firecracker accident.

Fire prevention experts, eye-health advocates, doctors and safety experts continue to urge Americans to quit using backyard fireworks, especially bottle rockets -- exploding rockets that hurl straight up into the air after a wick is lit.

State laws back up the experts' warnings -- to a point. Ohio, for example, allows only the use of novelty fireworks such as sparklers, but it's OK to buy other kinds of fireworks as long as the purchaser promises to take them out of state to use them. (See story on state laws.)

Buy from reliable fireworks sellers. Read and follow label directions.

Store fireworks in a closed or locked box in a cool, dry place (not under stairs, not in a passageway).

Make sure a sober adult is always present and in charge of fireworks. Never give fireworks to children under 5.

Never ignite fireworks, sparklers or other devices indoors; always ignite them outdoors.

Keep a bucket of water handy and put all spent fireworks and sparklers, in the water immediately.

Experts who warn against their use have witnessed the dangerous spinoffs -- shards of glass that must be delicately picked out of blinded eyeballs, fingers and thumbs blown off by exploding rockets, the third-degree blistering burns from firecrackers and hot flaming wheels.

"When will folks realize these things are made of the components of ammunition?" says Lauren Rogers, spokeswoman for the local Prevent Blindness Ohio chapter. "They are weapons, not party favors."

Yet despite pleas and recommended bans, Tristate back yards will continue to billow with rockets, candles, firecrackers, and exploding lights over the Fourth of July weekend.

"Most things can be used safely and enjoyed if there are adults present," Mr. Schellman says. "I think the key thing is that fireworks be used with adult supervision."

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