Shortly after midnight last July 5 outside a Hicksville restaurant, someone shot off fireworks. The smoldering remnants started a dumpster fire, which blew up a propane tank, which started a gas main fire, which ignited the restaurant.
It took 125 firefighters to quell the fire, which badly damaged the restaurant and was an example of the “serious danger to residents” posed by powerful explosives in amateur hands, Nassau County Chief Fire Marshal Michael Uttaro recalled this week. No one died or was seriously hurt.
To talk to Long Island’s first responders and doctors about peak fireworks season, the weeks leading up to and following July Fourth, is to encounter a history of bodily and property damage, much of it self-inflicted, almost all preventable.
Each year on Long Island around this time, 20 to 50 people, from babies to middle-aged adults, visit Suffolk County Volunteer Firefighters Burn Center at Stony Brook University Hospital with fireworks injuries, said Dr. Steven Sandoval, the center's medical director. “Every year there’s at least one or two people trying to make some kind of home mortar, losing digits, extremities, extensive soft tissue issues” and sometimes eyes, he said. “I never saw these kinds of injuries until I got into this business.” In the last five years he recalls only one death, when a mortar detonated in someone’s face.
WHAT TO KNOW
- Each year on Long Island around this time, dozens of people visit emergency rooms with injuries from fireworks, doctors say.
- Injuries range from facial burns to loss of digits, hands or eyes
- Last year, nationwide, fireworks were involved with 10,200 injuries treated in emergency departments, according to the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission. Most of them were between June 17 and July 17.
Last year, when Americans imported 449.1 million pounds of fireworks, there were at least 11 consumer fireworks-related deaths nationwide, and fireworks were involved with 10,200 injuries treated in emergency departments, according to the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission. Most of them were between June 17 and July 17; most of the victims were males, and most of the victims were aged 15 to 19.
Sparkler burns a common holiday injury
About half of Stony Brook’s admissions are people injured by sparklers, often children, Sandoval said. Some of the older ones hurt themselves; the youngest victims, “a year or two old, they’re not the ones holding the sparkler — somebody else is holding it, somebody runs up to them, taps them on the face or eye or hand.”
Sparklers “burn at several thousand degrees — just brief contact to skin will cause second- or third-degree burns” that penetrate deep below the epidermis. Contact burns are most common, Sandoval said, but occasionally he sees people whose clothes have caught fire.
Dr. Fred Davis, a Northwell Health doctor who specializes in emergency medicine, said he’s come to expect an uptick in patients around this time every year: mostly people aged 18 to their early 40s with injuries to the hand and face. “Part of it is people being too close to the fireworks, or holding on to the fireworks, or lighting them and holding them” when they detonate unexpectedly, he said. Most of the facial injuries he treats come from fireworks that turn into projectiles “aimed toward or near them, or they go off in a direction that people are not expecting.”
It is extremely rare to treat people for repeat fireworks injuries, Davis said, though he recalled treating at least one or two people for repeat fireworks injuries. Even in those cases, “we try to be unbiased when we treat … It’s a chance to educate and inform our patients, and when family members get hurt, it leads to a lot of education among the family.”
Newsday’s archives on the subject depict more than half a century of mayhem, starting with two boys, who lost a hand and an eye, respectively, in separate incidents in 1954, with dozens more stories through 2021, when a mortar blew up in a 13-year-old boy’s face in Deer Park.
According to the American Pyrotechnics Association, a trade group, the rate of fireworks injuries has fallen drastically since the 1970 and is now the lowest in history. The group attributes the decline to “industry safety education efforts and the ever improving quality of its products.”
Pushing for new restrictions
In New York, it is a misdemeanor to sell fireworks, and repeat offenders can be convicted of a felony; even possession is a violation. A 2018 change in state law permitted sale and use of sparklers and similar devices in most counties, though not in Nassau, Suffolk, New York City and a few other counties.
Last year, according to the state’s Department of Criminal Justice Services, there were at least 26 arrests of people 18 and older statewide, including three in Nassau and three in Suffolk, where a fireworks charge was the top charge. Nassau police made 32 arrests with fireworks charges last year and four this year, Nassau police Det. Lt. Richard LeBrun wrote in an email. The department “has a zero tolerance approach with regard to illegal possession and setting off fireworks” and has begun blanketing neighborhoods where people are known to set them off with flyers warning of arrest, he said. Suffolk police did not provide arrest statistics.
Sandoval, who each year releases a list of burn safety tips to the public, has pushed for tighter restrictions, as have fire officials like Uttaro and John D’Alessandro, secretary of the Firefighters Association of the State of New York, which represents volunteer firefighters. D’Allesandro said he suspected much of the legalization push came from local governments chasing sales tax revenue.
But any gains are likely offset by the monetary cost of increased calls for service due to injuries, and by a greater social cost, he said: “You get a very different perspective on things if you have to go to someone’s house and pick up a finger … or see a little child with a severe burn on their face,” he said.