THE Model Rocketeers

TIMES STAFF WRITER

You could almost see it as a episode of "The Simpsons." Bart buys a model rocket at a nearby toyshop, packs the $4 engines with black powder filched from dad's workbench and sets up his launch at the park.

Countdown, then boom! An explosion rocks the neighborhood. Cut to smoke clearing from Bart's face, blackened with soot. Mr. and Mrs. Simpson get a stern lecture from the fire chief and a bill for the cleanup. Bart gets restriction for life.

Jay McIntire and his parents lived that episode, sans laughs. Seven months, five surgeries and $60,000 in medical bills later, the San Juan Capistrano family hopes others may learn from what the eighth-grader calls "the worst year of my life."

Jay, 13, and a pal admittedly tampered with the solid-propulsion rocket engine that heated the black powder and exploded, leaving Jay on fire. Aside from that, they had no idea California law forbids anyone under 14 from using the rockets without adult supervision. And that except in one Orange County park, it is illegal to launch them without permit.

How could they? Packaging on the rockets sold nationwide makes no mention of local legal restrictions, and some toy stores fail to post or mention them either, despite signs supplied by the world's largest manufacturer of the devices.

The rockets, launched by more than 2 million people a year nationally, are generally safe when used properly, fire officials say. But the potential danger is dramatic.

"Like any fire, these things could really wipe out a whole community," said Orange County Fire Capt. Dan Young.

The romantic fascination with rockets is almost a youthful rite of passage, born three decades ago with the space race. The devices have come a long way since those days, when back-yard enthusiasts injured themselves as often as seven out of 10 times.

Parents, however, might take heed of their own liability if their children break the law--intentionally or not. In such cases, fire officials are legally entitled to recover up to $25,000 a day for their costs.

A Yorba Linda family learned the hard way last summer when their 15-year-old misfired a model rocket and accidentally started a 7,000-acre brush fire in Chino Hills State Park. They were charged with the costs: $110,000. The family lost friends, the teen-ager was shunned at school and is still working off his sentence: 400 hours of community service work. He was not a scofflaw. He was close to becoming an Eagle Scout.

In December, a 10-year-old Los Angeles boy took two rocket engines and, with an alarm clock, made a bomb that sheriff's arson experts diffused six minutes before it was set to go off at the boy's school. There was no damage, but the youth--described by one investigator as "a smart little kid, a good kid"--was banned from the school district for a year.

"You think of something bought in a toy store as safe, but it's not," says Cindy McIntire. "Kids get into things. They made a bomb is what they did, and they didn't realize it.

"It's been six months I wouldn't want anyone to go through again," she added. Her only child missed "five weeks of school, he got behind, he felt bad about himself. It's got a happy ending, but he could have lost an eye. Or been disfigured, or worse. It's not a toy. I think that's probably the bottom line. And they are selling these things to children when the law says they can't."

Rocketry is a hobby thousands of Americans--an estimated 50% of them adults--pursue with verve and appropriate caution.

It is hard to compare the safety of model rockets--specifically the pyrotechnic engines that propel them--with the safety of other hobbies or toys.

"They are really not the same as anything else," says state fire marshal spokeswoman Sandy Simpson. "It's why they have their own article in the state health and safety code."

California's law on the rocket engines is the most restrictive of any state's, according to Colorado-based Estes Industries, which claims to control 85% or 90% of the U.S. model rocket market.

"In every state in the United States, with the exception of California, New Jersey and Massachusetts, kids of any age can use model rockets," said Mary Roberts, Estes marketing manager.

Estes, therefore, puts the following warning on its rocket and engine packaging: "Recommended for ages 10 through adult. Adult supervision suggested for those under 12 years of age. . . ."

The packages also carry a safety checklist, which makes no mention of the local legal age and launch restrictions.

Estes says it provides signs for California retailers, stating that buyers must be 14 years or older. But few stores display the signs.

Play Co. Toys in El Toro not only posts signs but keeps the engines behind the counter. This way, says manager Donna Hogan, young customers asking for such a "danger item" can be asked for proof of age and advised of the law.

"Some toy stores stock them on the aisles, and they are really a highly stolen item," Hogan said. "If retailers were more aware of how to sell them and inform people, it would be better."

California, among the top 10 states for model rocket sales, is also the only one that insists on fire marshal classification of rocket engine potency, as well as special labeling that features the fire marshal seal of approval.

"We've had (mishaps) over the years, but . . . when model rockets are used as designed, manufactured and with a permit, I can't recall ever having an incident," said Mike Mc Cann, chief of investigation for the Orange County Fire Department, which handled both the San Juan and Yorba Linda rocket accidents. "It's usually when they are tampered with or modified in some way that we've got problems."

Estes says that perhaps 5% of youthful rocket enthusiasts are under age 10; nearly half are between the ages of 10 and 15 and most are boys.

The 10- to 15-year-olds are in the age group that fire authorities find misuse the devices most.

"At that age are the kids who get into trouble," says Orange County Fire Department spokeswoman Kathleen Cha.

"The problem you run into with (some) parents is they're into reloading (ammunition) and leave black powder around, and kids are real inventive," says Dan Waters, a bomb technician and arson investigator with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. He handled the case of the 10-year-old bomb-maker, who told detectives he learned to construct the explosive by watching a television show, a claim that later proved false.

Orange County Fire Department's Mc Cann said that some boys want to improve the basic rocket's power. The perception is that "if a little bit is good, then a whole lot more is even better. We see that a lot."

It was parent-teacher conference day at Jay McIntire's junior high school, so he and two classmates decided to while away part of that Friday in February launching rockets at Cooks Park.

Jay had been given a model rocket starter kit for his ninth birthday, purchased by a friend at a Mission Viejo Mall toy store. His interest in rockets had been whetted by watching several soar 1,000 feet into the sky during a science class demonstration at his school.

Before heading to the park, Jay and Ryan Whitmore, 13, stopped off at the Whitmore family's garage. On the workbench, they found a canister of black powder that Ryan's father had used during an Indian Guides ceremony (a pinch of the extremely volatile substance is tossed into the campfire for effect).

They tucked the can into his backpack "in case we ran out of engines," the youth recalled during an interview with him and his mother. "I thought it was just more of the same stuff that was in the engines."

Encased in paper "so that should there be a mishap, there wouldn't be any shrapnel," the engines are made of potassium nitrate, sulfur and charcoal, "which is a type of black powder," Estes' Roberts said. The engines, she said, are difficult to ignite without an excess of 540 degrees heat for an extended period of time--usually a half hour."

Jay poured the black powder onto the spent engine end, which was still hot. He started to back away but got only 5 feet when the engine exploded with such force that parents and teachers at the school across the street believed a bomb had landed nearby.

"I didn't even know I was on fire," Jay recalled, still amazed at the thought, "until my friends were yelling at me to drop and roll. My shirt was burning here," he added, revealing a scar from a third-degree burn on his right shoulder.

Paramedics arrived and found the two boys and a third friend with burns to their faces, necks, head and hands. Jay and Ryan, in critical condition, were flown by emergency helicopter to the UC Irvine Burn Center in Orange. That is where their parents found them, faces embedded black with the exploded powder.

Days of painful treatment followed, including the scraping off of dead skin to prevent infection. The boys missed weeks of school.

Jay's arms are still dotted with pen-like marks that will require still more high-tech treatments at UCI's Beckman Laser Institute and Medical Clinic. Their plastic surgeon, Bruce M. Achauer, uses a ruby laser much like that used in tattoo removal. Because of its precision, each particle is essentially exploded in order to remove it.

Instead of a sentence, juvenile court ordered the boys to undergo family counseling and write 3,000-word essays on fire safety. They met with the juvenile equivalent of a probation officer and paid the $750 in firefighting costs.

Cindy McIntire says she believes her son learned a painful lesson and has taken responsibility for his mistake. Now she thinks vendors of the model rocket engines ought to do a better job of advising customers of the law.

Linda Whitmore believes her son's punishment far outshot his misdeeds and has consulted an attorney. But she agrees with McIntire about the public's lack of model rocket knowledge.

"I teach junior high school science, and I didn't have one of 150 students know they are illegal," Whitmore said. "It's a lot like fireworks; use of them is restricted.

"Obviously they didn't know the law, or why would they be in a public park with 100 witnesses? My kid hardly misses a day in school, gets straight A's, and this has just shaken him to the core. He feels really bad about himself."

Ryan, she added, won't even light the family barbecue anymore.

Even the flock of rocketeers launching pointy-tipped Athenas and Buck Rogers legally one recent gray Saturday at Mile Square Park said it's easy for children to both buy and use model rocket engines.

"Most hobby shops, maybe they know (the regulations), but they don't tell you," said David Veekman, 32, of Long Beach, a rocket enthusiast since childhood who was teaching his three sons the ropes. "You see people do them on the beach."

Most fire officials agreed that confusion could result when information on the rocket engine packages differs from the law, and most cited the public's general lack of knowledge.

But there are efforts to change those factors. The Orange County Fire Department, devotes hundreds of hours each year with 10,000 fifth-graders through its comprehensive Junior Firefighter Program.

"Model rockets are a common (topic) at these programs," Cha said. "When your store owners are selling them, they are supposed to advise (the buyer) of launch restrictions. All these rules are supposed to be met," says Orange County Fire Department's Cha. "The information is out there, but more people need to get it."

Safely Launching a Model Rocket More than 2 million people a year--half of them adults--fire model rockets, usually without incident. But safety and health officials worry about the potential for danger. California, which is among the top states for model rocket sales, is the hobby's most restrictive. Yet in 1989, the last year for which complete figures are available, model rockets caused 58 fires and injured two people. Nationally, 306 were injured that year.

1. Electrically ignited rocket engine provides lift-off. Safety Tip: When launching use a remote-controlled electrically operated system that will return to the "off" position when released. Remain at least 10 feet away from a launch.

2. Rocket accelerates and gains altitude during coast phase. Safety Tip: Launch only in a cleared area, free of easily combustible materials. In Orange County, you may only launch in Fountain Valley's Mile Square Park.

3. Rocket reaches peak altitude. Ejections charge activates recovery system. Safety Tip: Do not launch in high winds or near buildings, power lines, or tall trees.

4. Recovery parachute is deployed.

5. Touchdown. Ready to launch again. Safety Tip: Never attempt to recover a rocket from power lines or other dangerous places.

Parts of a Model Rocket Rockets should be made of lightweight material such as wood or plastic. There should be no metal parts and it should weigh no more than 16 ounces. The engines should contain no more than four ounces of propellant.

Parts Body tube Stage coupler Body tube Tube adapter Body tube Parachute Shroud lines Shock cord Nose block Payload section Nose cone Source: Model Rocket Manufacturers Assn.

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