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21 Killed as Fireworks Plant Blows Up : 5 Injured, 2 Missing in Oklahoma Explosion Felt 40 Miles Away

Times Staff Writer

A huge explosion in a fireworks factory, so intense that it shook the ground 40 miles away, killed at least 21 persons Tuesday, injured five and sent a ball of flame and smoke into the air that could be seen for miles.

The explosion occurred when the factory was working at peak capacity, with extra temporary help, in preparation for the Fourth of July.

“I would say that this is one of the worst, if not the worst, fireworks factory accidents in recent history,” Robert White, a Tulsa-based agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, said.

There were reports that the factory had hired persons under 18 years of age, but Stewart Meyer, a spokesman for the Oklahoma Highway Patrol, said he could not confirm them. Federal and state laws require that employees of such plants be at least 18 years old.

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The factory, which was leveled by the blast, was situated on a remote country road about 40 miles from Tulsa. At about 9:30 a.m., three explosions rocked the rolling countryside, rattled the windows of the tiny ranching communities nearby and, Meyer said, were felt “all the way to Tulsa.”

Joe Harrison, the owner of a gasoline station less than 100 yards from the gravel turnoff to the factory, said he felt the shock waves and then saw a plume of smoke that resembled a nuclear mushroom.

Thought It Was Bomb

“I thought someone had dropped a bomb,” he said. “I have never heard anything that loud or felt the ground tremble under me.”

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He said that he and a friend raced down the road and the first person they saw was Jeff Fountain, who, besides working at the factory, is the mayor of Jennings.

“His pants and hair was still on fire,” Harrison said. “We put that out. And another man, he was on fire, but he was running so fast, we couldn’t catch him.”

Dr. Paul Davis, the Pawnee County medical examiner, said that the unidentified man ran more than two miles before rescue workers found him.

Meyer, the highway patrol spokesman, said that the cause of the blast has not been determined and would not be until experts sifted through the debris over the next two days. But he said that the first explosion apparently occurred where workers were loading or unloading materials from a pickup truck. The five workers who survived were outside the factory buildings, he said.

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Meyer said that the dead were burned so badly that positive identification will be impossible for some time, and he said that two persons were still unaccounted for.

“They’ve been over the area several times,” he said. “They are going to go over and over again until they find something.” Late Tuesday afternoon, a backhoe was moving dirt to drain a pond next to the factory, where searchers believed the two missing persons might be found.

Mary Lewis and her three children were in their trailer home, about 100 yards from the factory, when the explosion occurred. She said she at first thought the explosion was a sonic boom, but then she realized that the factory she had lived next to for years had blown up.

She gathered up her children and went outside, where she saw a man on fire running up the road.

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“It’s kind of scary, living beside it, but you get used to it,” she said. “It was a madhouse this morning. We walked the fields looking for bodies.”

The factory, which specialized in display fireworks used at major shows, had blown up in 1979 also, but no one was injured.

White, the alcohol, firearms and tobacco agent, said it was impossible to determine how many pounds of explosives were in the factory at the time of the blast. By late afternoon, the site of the factory was little more than cinders, cardboard fireworks and twisted sheet metal.

Meyer, the highway patrolman, said he did not know if the explosion would have any effect on the production of fireworks in Oklahoma.

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