Ocracoke celebration turns tragic|Fireworks explosion stuns Outer Banks community

Published 5:27 am Sunday, July 5, 2009

Lifestyles & Features Editor

The tranquil Outer Banks community of Ocracoke resembled a war zone after fireworks exploded unexpectedly Saturday morning, killing two.
A truck exploded shortly after 9 a.m. in the parking lot of the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching (NCCAT) campus overlooking Silver Lake harbor. The truck contained fireworks that were to have been the grand finale of the island’s July Fourth celebration.
Five victims — all employees of Melrose South Pyrotechnics, a Catawba, S.C.-based company hired to oversee Ocracoke’s fireworks show — were in or around the truck when the explosion occurred. One victim was pronounced dead at the scene and another died later at the burn unit at N.C. Memorial Hospital in Chapel Hill. The condition of the other three victims was not available at press time. The names of the victims were not being released pending the notification of their families.
The injured were transported by helicopter to hospitals on the mainland, according to Jesse Spencer, a member of the Ocracoke Volunteer Fire Department.
“There were a few little explosions and then just a big explosion,” Spencer said during a telephone interview Saturday afternoon. “We didn’t wait to get paged to go out — we knew something bad had happened.”
Spencer said the truck and a car were on fire when he arrived on the scene, and several “spot fires” were burning in a grassy area near the NCCAT building, formerly the island’s United States Coast Guard Station.
One of the fire department’s trucks and several volunteers were at the scene at the time of the explosion, Spencer said. They were wetting down the area where the fireworks were to be set up as a precaution.
“All of our fire and rescue personnel and those from the park service were here, and we had a huge turnout of doctors and nurses who were vacationing on the island,” Spencer said. “They were very helpful. Everybody pulled together, everybody took care of business.”
Two local residents, David Warren and Joyce Reynolds, were transported off-island by Dare County EMS after they were overcome at the scene by smoke inhalation and exhaustion, Spencer said. Warren is a paramedic on the island and Reynolds is pastor of Ocracoke United Methodist Church.
According to a news release issued by Jamie Tunnell, Hyde County’s public information officer, emergency personnel from Dare, Pender and Carteret counties joined local responders on the scene. The explosion occurred near the south ferry dock, which serves vessels traveling to Swan Quarter and Cedar Island, and that ferry service was shut down for most of the day Saturday for clean up operations.
Representatives from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Explosive Ordinance Disposal Company arrived on the island Saturday afternoon to evaluate the scene, according to Tunnell.
Ocracoke resident Sundae Horn, staff writer for the Washington Daily News weekly publication, The Ocracoker, said the village was rocked by the explosion.
“It rumbled in like thunder, with smaller explosions and then a great big explosion,” she said. “I knew right away it must be the fireworks.”
Horn said she has never experienced anything like Saturday’s tragedy.
“I’ve never been in a war zone, obviously, but I think this must be what it would be like, these big, huge explosions,” she said. “From my house I could see smoke above the trees and then I heard all the sirens. It was really scary.”
Horn attended a press conference held late Saturday at the Ocracoke Community Center, where it was announced the cause for the explosion is unknown and the investigation is continuing.
Meanwhile, the business of celebrating America’s birthday was put on hold. Although the sand sculpture contest on the beach and a sky diving exhibition was held Saturday as planned, it was decided to postpone the parade until today, Horn said.
“It’s been quiet here in the village,” she added. “It’s very much subdued.”