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Man shoots — and accidentally ignites towns’ fireworks displays

By Kim Murphy, Los Angeles Times –

BAINBRIDGE ISLAND, Wash. — The Grand Old Fourth celebration is always a big deal in this small island community near Seattle, featuring a pancake breakfast, a parade with community service groups and kids’ soccer teams, and of course the annual fireworks show over Eagle Harbor — a show that this year, nine days before the big event, went up in smoke.

Literally. Fireworks for Bainbridge Island’s Fourth of July show, along with fireworks for neighboring Poulsbo’s show, were packed, organized and stored ready to go in a container at an auto wrecking yard a few miles away. Then, authorities say, the operator of the wrecking yard decided to go outside and try out his new rifle.

This is the part of the story where everybody winces.

“One of the shots hit a junk car in his yard and must’ve ricocheted and struck the (container) that contained $80,000 worth of fireworks. Well, within about a second the box contained no explosives,” said Ron Krell of Viking Fest Inc., who’s helping organize Poulsbo’s July 3 show. “It exploded, and we had the greatest fireworks show you ever would have wanted to not see.”

Residents a mile away from the Belfair, Wash., wrecking yard reported hearing the resulting explosion last week. When it was over, only a smoking crater and the charred hulk of the container — which was propelled about 20 feet — marked the spot where everybody’s Fourth of July plans used to be.

“It went boom,” said Jeromy Hicks, investigator for Mason County Fire District 2, who was called to the scene. “I think it was a cascading series of explosions that lasted about a minute. I live a mile and a half away, and it shook my wife out of bed. She said, ‘Man, I think we just had an earthquake.’ Me, I sleep through anything.”

Seattle has a big fireworks extravaganza most years, but the two small towns, half an hour’s ferry ride away, couldn’t begin to afford that kind of show. They’ve relied in recent years on Robert Nitz, a mortgage finance specialist who produces budget fireworks shows in his spare time under a company he set up, Aurora Fireworks.

“I love fireworks,” said Nitz, who lost $1,366 after taxes in last year’s extravaganzas. He also arranges small shows for high school homecoming games, weddings and, for those who like to make a big deal of such things, birthday parties.

Organizers on Bainbridge Island and in Poulsbo were crestfallen. Nitz’s insurance covered him if one of his fireworks hit a bystander or landed on somebody’s roof, but there was no clause in the contract that covered somebody shooting off a gun while they were in legally permitted storage.

Likewise, Krell said, the auto wrecker’s insurance appears not to have envisioned such a scenario.

“He readily admits it. He knew the container was there, he knew the container contained fireworks, he accepts responsibility. But we don’t think the insurance will cover it, because it happened on business property and shooting a gun at 1 in the morning has nothing whatever to do with his business of auto wrecking — though he did wreck some autos,” Krell said.

Nitz, after a few “surreal” moments of feeling as if he’d been shot himself, got on the phone and scrambled to buy replacement fireworks, paid for out of his own pocket. He couldn’t, he said, tell two towns there would be no Fourth.

“They were counting on me to do a show for them, and it’d be a big disappointment if they didn’t have a show,” he said. “Every other fireworks company would be booked. There was nobody else to do it. So I had to.”

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