Victim tells of panic, pain at Simi fireworks show: ‘It felt like a punch’
Barbecue grills and lawn chairs littered a cordoned-off Simi Valley park Friday morning, left behind after onlookers fled a major malfunction at a fireworks show the night before.
At least 28 people gathered at Rancho Santa Susana Community Park were injured about 9:20 p.m., when officials believe at least one pyrotechnic device prematurely detonated in its mortar, causing a chain reaction that tipped over other fireworks and launched them into the crowd of spectators.
Josh Antonucci, 16, went to the show with about 20 family members, like they do every year. “This is usually the best place to go watch fireworks,” he said Friday morning in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. Antonucci and others had returned to the park to collect their belongings, including broken sunglasses and flip-flops.
Antonucci was near the front row with a cousin and a friend when he saw the fireworks tip over.
“It just went boom,” he said.
The person next to Antonucci was hit in the face, he said. Antonucci was struck by something -- he’s not sure what -- in the back. “It felt like a punch,” he said. “It wasn’t hot or cold.”
Then he took off running.
“I knew I just had to get away,” he said. “I went straight to my family ... to see if everyone was safe. Everything was going too fast.”
“There was a lot of panic,” he continued. “But also a lot of unity. Everyone was helping each other out.”
Rick Leidner, 42, of Simi Valley, spent the day at the park with about 55 family members. There was a band and concession stands, he said, and activities for the children and grandchildren in their group. “The whole day was perfect,” he said.
After the show began, he said, suddenly “a huge explosion started coming through the trees.”
Leidner said his 22-year-old son, who had ACL surgery three weeks ago, was trampled by the crowd. Paramedics took Dustin Fields to an area hospital, where he remained Friday morning.
“I’m hoping he’ll be released today,” Leidner said.
An estimated 8,000 to 10,000 people gathered to watch the show sponsored by the Simi Valley Rotary Club, who hired Bay Fireworks, a New York-based company that has produced events for Walt Disney World, NASA and the Republican National Convention. Bay Fireworks said they had no immediate comment, but expected to release a statement sometime Friday morning.
An investigation into the incident is ongoing, though authorities said they believe it was an industrial accident -- there were no initial indications of foul play and no criminal investigation is underway. The scene was marked by police tape Friday morning, as authorities waited for a Bay Fireworks team to remove the remaining pyrotechnics.
The Simi Valley bomb squad has deemed the area safe, but authorities said Bay Fireworks would remove the remaining pyrotechnics. That could take “quite some time,” Simi Valley police Cmdr. Blair Summey said, as the fireworks exploded about five minutes into what was supposed to be a 25-minute show.
Summey said that after the early detonation, a group of live canisters fell over like “dominoes.” One or more of them fired into the crowd of spectators, the closest of whom were about 800 feet away.
“These things were coming through low. They were skipping along the ground,” Summey said. “Some of these projectiles, they were exploding as they were coming out of the canisters.”
The 28 victims ranged in age from 8 to 78 years old. A total of 20 people were taken by ambulance to area hospitals. Four suffered serious, but not life-threatening, injuries. One police officer was also struck in the back by a projectile that cut the leather on his belt, Summey said.
The California Occupational Safety and Health Administration was notified and will also investigate the incident.
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