Man shoots -- and accidentally ignites towns’ fireworks displays

BAINBRIDGE ISLAND, Wash. — The Grand Old Fourth celebration is always a big deal in this small island community near Seattle, featuring a pancake breakfast, a parade with community service groups and kids’ soccer teams and of course the annual fireworks show over Eagle Harbor — a show that this year, nine days before the big event, went up in smoke.

Literally. Fireworks for Bainbridge Island’s Fourth of July show, along with fireworks for neighboring Poulsbo’s show, were packed, organized and stored ready to go in a container at an auto wrecking yard a few miles away. Then, authorities say, the operator of the wrecking yard decided to go outside and try out his new rifle.

This is the part of the story where everybody winces.

“One of the shots hit a junk car in his yard and must’ve ricocheted and struck the [container] that contained $80,000 worth of fireworks. Well, within about a second the box contained no explosives,” said Ron Krell of Viking Fest Inc., who’s helping organize Poulsbo’s July 3 show. “It exploded, and we had the greatest fireworks show you ever would have wanted to not see.”


Residents a mile away from the Belfair, Wash., wrecking yard reported hearing the resulting explosion last week. When it was over, only a smoking crater and the charred hulk of the container -- which was propelled about 20 feet -- marked the spot where everybody’s Fourth of July plans used to be.

“It went boom,” said Jeromy Hicks, investigator for Mason County Fire District 2, who was called to the scene. “I think it was a cascading series of explosions that lasted about a minute. I live a mile and a half away, and it shook my wife out of bed. She said, ‘Man, I think we just had an earthquake.’ Me, I sleep through anything.”

Seattle has a big fireworks extravaganza most years, but the two small towns, half an hour’s ferry ride away, couldn’t begin to afford that kind of show. They’ve relied in recent years on Robert Nitz, a mortgage finance specialist who produces budget fireworks shows in his spare time under a company he set up, Aurora Fireworks.

“I love fireworks,” said Nitz, who lost $1,366 after taxes in last year’s extravaganzas. He also arranges small shows for high school homecoming games, weddings and, for those who like to make a big deal of such things, birthday parties.

Organizers on Bainbridge Island and in Poulsbo were crestfallen. Nitz’s insurance covered him if one of his fireworks hit a bystander or landed on somebody’s roof, but there was no clause in the contract that covered somebody shooting off a gun while they were in legally permitted storage.

Likewise, Krell said, the auto wrecker’s insurance appears not to have envisioned such a scenario.

“He readily admits it. He knew the container was there, he knew the container contained fireworks, he accepts responsibility. But we don’t think the insurance will cover it, because it happened on business property and shooting a gun at 1 in the morning has nothing whatever to do with his business of auto wrecking -- though he did wreck some autos,” Krell said.

Nitz, after a few “surreal” moments of feeling as if he’d been shot himself, got on the phone and scrambled to buy replacement fireworks, paid for out of his own pocket. He couldn’t, he said, tell two towns there would be no Fourth.


“They were counting on me to do a show for them, and it’d be a big disappointment if they didn’t have a show,” he said. “Every other fireworks company would be booked. There was nobody else to do it. So I had to.”

Nitz had to buy the replacement fireworks at retail prices, rather than wholesale. It was doubly hard because he’d already programmed a show synchronized to music. He had to look for red rockets to shoot during the “rockets’ red glare” part of the Star-Spangled Banner -- not to mention the small shells that circle inside a bigger shell, like bubbles, that are perfect for songs such as “The Little Mermaid” theme.

“I spent probably 16 hours with four guys down there putting the shows back together,” Nitz said.

“They’re not exactly the effects I wanted originally. I had to reprogram the whole thing, but it’s going to go on, probably 90% as planned. The public won’t notice it. I will.”


Nitz is also making good on his plans to produce the nearby town of Silverdale’s annual Whaling Days celebration later this month.

Poulsbo organizers, who already had collected corporate contributions to finance much of this year’s Third of July show, are launching a separate appeal online to try to pay Nitz back for some of the money of his own he’s invested. They’ll also be going out among the hundreds of private boats expected to gather at Liberty Bay to watch the show and extending a fishing net to allow people to toss in cash from their decks.

A spokesman for the wrecking yard quickly hung up the phone when called for details about what happened on the night of the premature detonation.

Officials in Mason County said they were continuing an investigation, but Hicks, at the fire department, said it did not initially appear that any laws were broken.


“The owner of the junkyard, can he fire a weapon on his own property?” he said. “Yeah, I don’t think that’s illegal.”


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