Front-row view of fireworks disaster: Fireball, charred hair, fear

A sheriff's helicopter surveyed a Simi Valley park Friday morning as authorities walked the grassy lawn littered with items left behind. Lawn chairs. Broken sunglasses. Barbecue grills. Flip flops.

As people gathered near Rancho Santa Susana Community Park to retrieve their belongings and revisit the scene, many recalled the explosion at the Fourth of July fireworks display that sent the crowd running and left at least 28 people injured.

Simi Valley resident Victor Morales, 40, said his brother Danny Morales, 42, was hit between the eyes.

PHOTOS: Simi Valley fireworks explosion

"I saw him holding his face, and his face was full of blood," he said. 

His brother was taken to Los Robles Hospital in Thousand Oaks and was released Friday morning.

His son, also named Victor Morales, 20, said more than 20 of his friends and family were in the front row of the crowd - a spot they had reserved on Tuesday night, underscoring the show's popularity among Simi Valley residents.


The younger Morales, a student at the Art Institute of Hollywood, said many of his young cousins were in the front row in order to give them the best view. Many suffered burns, he said, but none was taken to the hospital.

"They are a little shaken up," he said.

Morales' mom saw a fireball coming toward her, he said, so she ducked down in her chair. Her hair was charred, he said, and the smell of burning hair and burning blankets filled the air.

An estimated 8,000 to 10,000 people were gathered at the park Thursday to watch the show when, officials believe, at least one pyrotechnic prematurely exploded in a mortar, causing a chain reaction that tipped over other fireworks and launched them into the crowd of spectators.

The crowd scattered as emergency workers rushed in to help. Simi Valley police said 20 people were transported to area hospitals. Four suffered serious, but not life-threatening, injuries. One police officer was also struck in the back by a projectile that cut the leather on his belt.

The number of injured is likely greater than 28, with many patients driving themselves to local hospitals for treatment.

Simi Valley Hospital treated 26 patients, 14 of which came in by ambulance, according to hospital spokeswoman Alicia Gonzalez. The patients ranged in age from 17 months to 71 years, and 12 were children, she said.

Twenty-three patients have been treated and released, she said. One was transported to an area burn center. Two remained at Simi Valley Hospital on Friday morning, but were listed in fair condition.

The injuries included burns, shrapnel, trampling and chest pains, Gonzalez said.

"All of the sudden, we saw fireworks shooting across the ground in every direction," said Don Darby, 53, of Simi Valley. "A couple more went off. ... Sparks were flying."

Roger Powell, 63, watched the show from a few blocks away. About a minute in, he said, the sky flashed.

"It was almost like the finale was going off," he said. "I'm thinking, 'Wow, this is going to be one heck of a show.'"

It wasn't until the fireworks stopped and the helicopters came that Powell realized something had gone wrong.

The show was sponsored by the Simi Valley Rotary Club, which hired Bay Fireworks, a New York-based company that has produced events for Walt Disney World, NASA and the Republican National Convention.

In a statement issued Friday, Bay Fireworks said it "deeply regrets" the incident.

The company said its "major concern and focus" were on injured spectators and their families. It asked anyone injured in Thursday's show to contact the Simi Valley Rotary Club to obtain insurance information for Bay Fireworks.

Bay Fireworks described its staff as "highly qualified," saying it was regularly trained and used equipment "inspected and approved by authorities." "Our displays, like the one in Simi Valley, are properly permitted through local authorities having jurisdiction," the statement said.

Bay Fireworks said it would conduct a "complete and thorough" investigation and would make the results available to the public.

"In the days and weeks to come, Bay Fireworks will work closely with the Simi Valley and all local, state and federal agencies that have jurisdiction over our operations in order to reach an accurate conclusion to this unfortunate accident, and to ensure that it does not happen again," the company said.

The California Occupational Safety and Health Administration has been notified of the incident.

Local authorities said that although the inquiry is ongoing, they believe it was an industrial accident -- there were no initial indications of foul play and no criminal investigation is underway. The scene was marked by police tape Friday morning, as authorities waited for a Bay Fireworks team to remove the remaining pyrotechnics.

The Simi Valley bomb squad has deemed the area safe, but authorities said Bay Fireworks would remove the remaining pyrotechnics. That could take "quite some time," Simi Valley police Cmdr. Blair Summey said. The fireworks exploded about five minutes into what was supposed to be a 25-minute show.

Summey said that after the early detonation, a group of live canisters fell over like "dominoes." One or more of them fired into the crowd of spectators, the closest of whom were about 800 feet away.

"These things were coming through low. They were skipping along the ground,"  Summey said. "Some of these projectiles, they were exploding as they were coming out of the canisters."

Josh Antonucci, 16, went to the show with about 20 family members, like they do every year. "This is usually the best place to go watch fireworks," he said.

Antonucci was near the front row with a cousin and a friend when he saw the fireworks tip over.

"It just went boom," he said.

The person next to Antonucci was hit in the face, he said. Antonucci was struck by something -- he's not sure what -- in the back. "It felt like a punch," he said. "It wasn't hot or cold."

Then he took off running.

"I knew I just had to get away," he said. "I went straight to my family ... to see if everyone was safe. Everything was going too fast."

"There was a lot of panic," he continued. "But also a lot of unity. Everyone was helping each other out."

Rick Leidner, 42, of Simi Valley, spent the day at the park with about 55 family members. There was a band and concession stands, he said, and activities for the children and grandchildren in their group. "The whole day was perfect," he said.

After the show began, he said, suddenly "a huge explosion started coming through the trees."

Leidner said his 22-year-old son, who had ACL surgery three weeks ago, was trampled by the crowd. Paramedics took Dustin Fields to an area hospital, where he remained Friday morning.

"I'm hoping he'll be released today," Leidner said.


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