Black powder ignites a plume of smoke as the charge starts to burn to set off a homemade explosive inside a watermelon during a safety demonstration.
Carlos Schrader, a Pittsburgh Bomb Squad detective, holds a watermelon with a homemade explosive inside, and a bag of black powder that's used to help ignite the explosive, during a demonstration on fireworks, gas grilling and campfire safety.
Three watermelons loaded with homemade explosives are ignited during a demonstration on fireworks, gas grilling and campfire safety.
Pittsburgh bomb squad Detective Carlos Schradera holds a different homemade explosive.
By Marisa Iati / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Five years after a fireworks accident sent Brianna Dulik to West Penn Burn Center with third- and fourth-degree burns, the 11-year-old still has the scars.
The Greene County girl was at a graduation party in July 2009 when a firework shot into her lap, sending her into shock.
“I didn’t really know what happened,” she said. “The last thing I could remember is we were setting off fireworks and one ... hit me.”
After putting out the fire on her dress, Brianna’s family drove her to Southwest Regional Medical Center in Waynesburg. Doctors then sent her to West Penn Hospital, where she stayed for a week and received skin-grafting surgery to treat burns on her legs and stomach.
“It was such a high-degree burn that it didn’t hurt when I walked or anything,” said Brianna of Carmichaels. “After the surgery is when it started to hurt. The most painful part was when we had to take the bandages off.”
Even after the bandages were gone, Brianna continued to face the repercussions of her injuries. For three years, she wore a garment that applied pressure to smooth out her skin, and she had a second surgery to fix a spot on her stomach where two skin grafts had created a raised scar.
For the past five summers, she has attended West Penn Burn Center’s annual camp, where her favorite activities are swimming and riding the zip line.
Among other kids who have suffered serious burn injuries, Brianna fits right in.
Brianna’s story is not uncommon. Almost 10,000 fireworks-related injuries occur in the United States each year.
Fireworks have been used to celebrate America’s founding since the nation’s first anniversary in 1777, making the month surrounding the July Fourth holiday particularly dangerous.
In 2012, about 60 percent of recorded fireworks injuries took place between June 22 and July 22.
“These can be devastating eye injuries, facial injuries and hand injuries — not only thermal burns or cutaneous burns but also blast-type injuries,” said Jenny Ziembicki, medical director at UPMC Mercy Burn Center. “We see amputations, loss of vision, significant fractures.”
Mark Pinchalk, patient care coordinator at Pittsburgh EMS, said about 50 fireworks-related injuries occur in the Pittsburgh area each summer. Most are minor and can be treated by emergency personnel at victims’ homes, but a few people suffer combined injuries.
The combined injuries are the pairing of a burn with significant trauma, such as soft tissue or orthopedic injuries. They usually occur when an explosive goes off in a person’s hand or when someone is injured by a larger firework, such as an M-80 or M-100.
Pennsylvania law prohibits the use of consumer or display fireworks without a permit. But items that the American Pyrotechnics Association defines as “ground and hand-held sparkling devices,” “novelties” or “toy caps” are allowed.
Many people use banned items anyway, often suffering significant harm by trying to combine several fireworks into a larger explosive.
“Obviously, their quality control is extremely bad,” said Carlos Schrader, a detective with the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police bomb squad. “They’re using metal objects that may spark or cause friction or heat while they’re working on it.”
Other times, young people hurt themselves by playing with Roman candles, a type of firecracker that explodes in the air.
“They’re pointing them at each other like Harry Potter or something,” Detective Schrader said.
Adults also injure themselves with fireworks, sometimes after they have been drinking.
“We’ve had several in the Allegheny County area where they’ve actually blown off their fingers or hands [or] severely damaged their arms or legs,” the detective said.
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission received reports of six nonoccupational fireworks-related deaths in 2012. Additionally, about 20,000 fires occur nationwide each year because of fireworks.
Treatment and prevention
People often try to treat injuries with home remedies, such as ointments or oils. But Ariel Aballay, medical director at West Penn Burn Center, said doing so is not a good idea.
“None of those things work,” Dr. Aballay said. “The first thing is to cool the wound with cold water for a minute or so and then look for medical attention. That’s usually the best way to minimize an injury from progressing or getting worse.”
Anyone who suffers a burn injury should go immediately to an emergency room, Dr. Aballay said. People can also receive treatment at West Penn’s outpatient clinic for up to 24 hours after an injury occurs.
But the best treatment is prevention, and the most effective way to avoid fireworks-related injuries is not to use fireworks at all, Dr. Ziembicki said.
“The No. 1 thing to do is leave all the fireworks to the professionals,” she said. “Even what’s considered legal fireworks can cause devastating injuries — loss of vision, amputations. Sparklers burn at 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit and can cause significant injuries.”
Pittsburgh will host a public fireworks display as part of the Three Rivers Regatta this weekend.
The EQT “Flashes of Freedom” fireworks show will begin at 9:35 p.m. Friday just off Point State Park. The display will be put on by Zambelli Fireworks, which CNN touted in 2011 as one of “the five royal families of fireworks.”
The fireworks show will come at the tail end of 2½ days of music, games, shows and competitions that will happen at the park as part of the regatta.
Never too careful
Since Brianna’s accident, the Dulik family has not set off another firework. The risk is too high.
But Brianna’s mom, Lynn Dulik, said that people who do shoot off fireworks “can just never be too careful.”
“I don’t know whether it would be helpful to have a hose or water around if something did happen,” Ms. Dulik said. “And you can never be too far away [from the explosives].”
Brianna, a student at Carmichaels Area Elementary Center, still must deal with the aftermath of an accident that will affect her far into the future.
“People would look at her funny because she has all these scars on her legs,” Ms. Dulik said. “Her stomach you don’t really see because she has a shirt on. But they’re scars she’s going to have for the rest of her life.”
Marisa Iati; firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1891 or on Twitter @marisa_iati.
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