Plenty of peril with illegal fireworks
By Peter Boylan
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Peter Boylan
Legal fireworks sales start today but authorities are urging residents to stay away from dangerous illegal fireworks that began pouring into the Islands immediately after Thanksgiving.
By plane and by boat, local smugglers and criminal entities based in Asia and the U.S. Mainland have been shipping illegal fireworks into the state for months, according to police and federal law enforcement officials. The underground business is difficult to quantify, officials said, but it is booming.
Residents often don't realize just how dangerous the explosives can be.
"People who hoard these things and think they're great and wonderful don't understand the problems they create," said Tracy K. Elder, resident agent in charge of the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives' Honolulu office.
"These things don't keep forever, and the powder in them can degrade and then they become very unstable and it takes very little to set them off. They can detonate and create a major explosion."
The ATF receives two to three complaints a year, usually during the holidays, about large shipping container-sized shipments of fireworks coming into the Islands from the U.S. Mainland, China, Thailand and other locations in Asia.
Smugglers often bury the illegal fireworks in crates of legal fireworks then disguise the description on the shipping manifest, Elder said.
Elder said his office works jointly with Honolulu police to interdict large shipments.
A recent bust occurred on Nov. 25, when police officers from the Pearl City Crime Reduction Unit seized nearly 1,000 pounds of illegal aerial fireworks after spotting the explosives in a van parked in Waipi'o. The street value of the cache was estimated at $62,000, police said.
A 35-year-old Waialua man was booked on suspicion of not having a permit to transport explosives, then released pending further investigation.
Police suspect the 998 pounds of aerial fireworks were to be delivered to distributors in what is believed to be a multimillion-dollar underground business, which flourishes between Thanksgiving and early December, when orders for New Year's celebrations are taken and processed.
EASY ACCESS TO AERIALS
Aerials are prohibited in Hawai'i, but it's not difficult to purchase them through underground dealers, police said. Buying lists for illegal fireworks are usually circulated on O'ahu in late October and early November and offer everything from aerials to red-paper firecrackers.
Since 1988, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has cataloged the seizure of nearly 460 million hazardous fireworks at docks across the country.
In the Nov. 25 bust, officers patrolling Kamehameha Highway spotted boxes labeled explosives through the open door of a 1991 Chevy van parked on the 94-800 block of Uke'e Street in Waipi'o Gentry at 1:30 p.m. The van's driver told police he did not have a permit to haul explosives and was arrested.
The recovered stash included aerials such as "Super Artillery Shells," "Triple V Bear Art," "Shock Wave," "Earth Shakers 9 Shots" and "Glitter King 12 Shots."
Fireworks, especially illegal aerials, create havoc on New Year's Eve for firefighters, and if Honolulu Fire Department Chief Kenneth G. Silva had his way, fireworks would be left to professional pyrotechnicians.
According to the Honolulu Fire Department, 83 of 201 alarms in the three days leading up to New Year's 2006 were for fireworks-related incidents. During that period, firefighters responded to nine structure fires, 95 brushfires, 65 rubbish fires, six trash-bin fires and 26 other fire calls.
"You have people that are shooting off stuff that is illegal and not doing it properly and that increases the chance of serious injury or death," Silva said. "I know it's a part of our culture, part of the way we're raised in Hawai'i, but as a fire service professional, I see the damage and the injuries that go along with it.
"If we have our companies out fighting multiple brushfires around the Island, that dilutes our service for our core activities, which include people needing oxygen and grandma and grandpa not feeling good. New Year's Eve is the busiest day of the year for us traditionally. If I had my way, I would like to see consumer fireworks banned and leave the fireworks to professionals."
To buy legal fireworks, residents must buy $25 permits, which allow the purchase of 5,000 individual nonaerial fireworks, known as firecrackers, from retail outlets.
Firework permit sales were up last year to 13,981, compared with 12,662 in 2004.
SAFETY A MAJOR ISSUE
Children younger than 14 account for more than half of all fireworks-related injuries over the past six years, and authorities are urging supervision and safety heading into New Year's Eve.
From Dec. 30, 2005 to Jan. 2, 2006, 86 people were treated in Hawai'i emergency rooms for fireworks-related injuries, a 25 percent decrease from the total of 115 injuries during the previous New Year's period, according to the state Department of Health's Injury Prevention and Control Program.
The 86 injuries is the second-highest total in the six years the state monitored the data. Patients in Honolulu County accounted for most of the decrease, with 65 injuries this year, compared with 97 in 2005, a 33 percent decrease. The number of injuries on the Neighbor Islands increased slightly, from 18 to 21.
About 76 percent of the 478 injuries in the state over the six-year period were suffered on O'ahu.
"The real issue is the number of kids that are injured. Children basically are more than half the people getting hurt," said Dan Galanis, an epidemiologist with the state Department of Health's Injury Prevention and Control Program.
"Parents need to be more on it than they probably are because it's really kids who are at risk. I know it's hard, you're socializing inside and the kids are outside chucking stuff in the street but it's really a supervision issue."Advertiser staff writer Rod Ohira contributed to this report.
Reach Peter Boylan at firstname.lastname@example.org.