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Pelham Incident Still Fresh In Local Memory As Fireworks Debate Continues

Ryan Lessard

It’s the Fourth of July and celebrations across the state are often inseparable from a spectacular fireworks show. And while the New Hampshire Fire Marshall’s office urges residents to attend a professional display, many Granite Staters will be exercising their freedom to launch their own. And the debate surrounding the safety of certain, recently-legalized fireworks devices is far from dead.

To demonstrate the dangers of the controversial devices known as reloadable mortars, the state Fire Marshall’s office pulls the media together and puts a watermelon over a launch tube. The idea is to simulate what could happen to a person. Fire Investigator Chris Wyman.

“…Melon right. So we’ll do the melon one again in case you didn’t get it the first time. So it’s gonna be the one on the right hand side. The single shot, same thing.” [BOOM!]

This year, because of the rain, the shell exploded on the ground, shooting luminous debris at the press pool standing 75 feet away. The demonstration was cut short but the point was made. Things can go wrong.

Last year, things went very wrong at the Pappathan residence in Pelham. They had put on a home fireworks show every year for 40 years. But this was the first year reloadable mortars and spinners, devices the state legalized in 2011, were used. And they both played a role in what followed. An accidental explosion resulted in more than a dozen people injured with burns and lacerations. A two-year-old boy was so badly injured, doctors needed to induce a coma for nearly a week.

This led to a fight at the State House to ban those types of fireworks, but that fizzled to all but an ember.

“Some of the industry fought very hard…”

State Fire Marshall Bill Degnan is leading the charge to ban reloadable mortars, spinners and parachute devices.

Credit Ryan Lessard / NHPR
Fire Marshall Bill Degnan holding a box containing mortar and reloadable shells.

“Their lobbyists obviously were successful and the bill was going to be killed. The committee did retain the bill because the committee believes that something needs to be done.”

The House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee will revisit the bill in the fall. Fireworks retailers say demand is still high. Phantom Fireworks says the reloadable mortars continue to be in the top two most popular items. Meanwhile, New Hampshire-based Atlas Fireworks say its reloadable mortar sales have flattened since last year.

Before becoming a reporter for NHPR, Ryan devoted many months interning with The Exchange team, helping to produce their daily talk show. He graduated from the University of New Hampshire in Manchester with a major in Politics and Society and a minor in Communication Arts. While in school, he also interned for a DC-based think tank. His interests include science fiction and international relations. Ryan is a life-long Manchester resident.

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