July 4, 2013

Mainer 'lucky' to be alive after explosion

John Littlefield spent 10 days in the hospital after Portland's 2012 "Stars and Stripes Spectacular" fireworks display went wrong.

By Randy Billings rbillings@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND – John Littlefield suddenly found himself on his back on a barge anchored off the Eastern Promenade last July 5 as fireworks rocketed from the racks nearby.

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John Littlefield was injured last year when fireworks prematurely exploded during the fireworks show in Portland on July 5. Littlefield was working on a barge, helping to light off the fireworks when the explosion occurred. Littlefield poses on the Eastern Prom on Tuesday, July 2, 2013 next to a dumpster that holds mortar tubes that will be used to set off this year's fireworks.

Gregory Rec / Staff Photographer

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Scott Trouwborst of Moonlighting Production Services sets up the sound on the stage where Don McLean and the Portland Symphony Orchestra will perform during the "Stars and Stripes Spectacular," Portland's Fourth of July fireworks and concert celebration on the Eastern Promenade in Portland on July 3, 2013.

Tim Greenway / Staff Photographer

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His shoulder hurt. He could barely catch his breath. But over the thunder of the grand finale of Portland's 2012 "Stars and Stripes Spectacular," the professional pryotechnician heard his co-workers calling for someone to help him.

Soon after, in the emergency room of Maine Medical Center, he caught a TV news report about a pyrotechnician who had suffered "minor injuries" during the city's fireworks display.

"I have not seen a doctor yet, but the local TV station knows my medical condition," Littlefield said. "Amazing!"

Those injuries turned out to be a broken humerus, clavicle and scapula, broken neck vertebrae and ribs, and a collapsed lung. Littlefield would undergo two surgeries, involving stainless steel plates and screws, and spend 10 days in the hospital. The last of the metal pieces was removed two months ago.

As Portland prepares for Thursday's "Stars and Stripes Spectacular," Littlefield's story highlights the dangers of fireworks – even in the hands of professionals.

Portland has had four commercial fireworks incidents in the past 15 years, two in the past three years during July 4th displays by the company that's putting on this year's show.

Littlefield, who was injured when a mortar exploded just above the barge, was reluctant to share his story until recently.

He said he still has nerve damage in his left shoulder, causing partial paralysis that makes day-to-day tasks difficult. He can still do his desk job as an electrical engineer at Fairchild Semiconductor, but has had to give up basketball, swimming and kayaking.

And he will no longer work on commercial fireworks displays.

"Still, I am lucky," said Littlefield, 57, of Dayton. "A difference of 10 inches of (the) impact location, and I would have been hit square in the face, which undoubtedly would have been fatal."

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration did not investigate the incident because it wasn't fatal and fewer than three people had to be hospitalized, said William Coffin, OSHA's area director in Maine.

The American Pyrotechnics Association, the nation's oldest fireworks trade organization, tracks only consumer fireworks accidents because those involving professional pyrotechnicians are rare, said Julie Heckman, the association's executive director.

Last year, 8,658 injuries from consumer fireworks were reported, according to the American Pyrotechnics Association.

Maine hospitals reported 19 injuries related to consumer fireworks in 2012 -- when consumer fireworks became legal in the state, said Richard Taylor, senior research and planning analyst for the state Fire Marshal's Office.

Professionals typically get hurt when fireworks are hand-fired, Heckman said, but most large shows are fired electronically so they're safer.

"The operator is nowhere near the rack or the material," she said. "In the event there is a shell that malfunctions in a tube, the operator won't be harmed."

That wasn't the case in Portland last year.

While the show by Atlas PyroVision Productions of Jaffrey, N.H., was electronically fired, the crew and the fireworks were aboard a 110-foot-by-30-foot barge anchored off the Eastern Promenade.

The crew had a plywood shelter for protection, but had to venture out to extinguish a small fire that started when a mortar exploded on the barge, Littlefield said, and to uncover the racks full of fireworks for the grand finale.

"The thump of the lift charge is felt in your bones when you are this close to the mortars," Littlefield said. "Those of us who put on the show are just a few feet away with only a hard hat, (a life jacket) and goggles for protection."

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

A post-surgey X-ray shows the metal plates and screws implanted in John Littlefield's left shoulder to repair the injuries he suffered when fireworks misfired at Portland's 2012 Independence Day festivities. LIttlefield said doctors treated him for a broken humerus, clavicle, scapula, neck vertebrae, ribs, and a collapsed lung. Littlefield was contracted by Atlas Fireworks to work as part of the fireworks crew on the barge holding the fireworks that night.

Photo provided by John Littlefield


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