This story is by Jana Hollingsworth and John Lundy of the Duluth News Tribune. It originally appeared in the Tribune on Tuesday.
"It was just like the sky blew up and the fire came down on us."
That's what Jackie Gobel of Buhl told the News Tribune the night of the infamous 1988 Fourth of July fireworks explosion, 30 years ago.
Mere minutes into a half-hour show, a dud sputtered into a bunker of fireworks prepped for the finale, triggering the massive explosion. Sparks from 1,500 to 1,800 shells shot across the 75-foot slip from the launch site, raining down on the crowd of thousands. Many fled Bayfront Festival Park without their belongings in their haste to escape.
Initially, colorful sparks sprayed off the ground — and the crowd, clapping, appeared to think it was part of the show. But then several clusters exploded at once. A second explosion sent a black cloud through the sparks.
"All hell really broke loose," witness Elliott Skurich told the News Tribune that night.
Within 90 minutes of the initial explosion, fires, tended to by nearly three dozen firefighters from 11 trucks, were under control. Construction materials at the launch site caught fire and liquid propane tanks were nearby. Firefighters doused spot fires and kept flames from the tanks, while a U.S. Coast Guard boat bombarded the launch site with water cannons from the harbor.
Shockingly, no one was seriously harmed — minor burns were the extent of injuries. But the scene was chaotic with traffic jams, crying children and families separated momentarily in the pandemonium.
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The fireworks were set off by Arrowhead Fireworks Co., west of Bayfront Park from the then-vacant boat slip that is now the site of Pier B Resort. The pyrotechnics crew dove under dumpsters and into pipes to escape the fireballs shooting into the air in close proximity.
"I almost died, and I realize that," crew member Trajan Gustafson told the News Tribune the next day. "The sky almost turned white."
The heat and concussion ignited shells underneath tarps, which set them off sideways, some shooting like cannons. The dud shell was to have shot 2,000 feet into the air. It traveled only 20-50 feet from the ground.
The Vista Star cruise ship was in the harbor during the display, but safely away from the showers of fireworks.
"There wasn't any panic," its captain, Ed Modin, told the News Tribune. "But it was awesome. Nobody knew what was going on until it was over and we saw the (fire) trucks coming down the hill."
Fireworks were launched from a barge anchored in the harbor following the 1988 explosion, but even that led to a mishap in 1989.
"A wind gust hit at the wrong time and fireworks fell into Bayfront Park, including an empty baby carriage," said Dan Russell, retired as executive director of the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center. "There have been a lot of improvements since then."
Now, the fireworks show is staged from a slip far from Bayfront.
"The fireworks are not shot off anywhere near where there's people anymore," said Jeff Stark, venue operations and Bayfront Festival Park supervisor for the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center.
Julie Heckman, executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association, said fireworks shows in general have become much safer over the past 30 years. Now, unlike then, all aerial shells greater than 6 inches in diameter must be fired electronically, she said. The distance required between spectators and the firing site also has increased significantly.
Stark was 9 years old in 1988 and watching the fireworks from several blocks away when the misfire occurred. His first thought was that a mistake had been made.
"We thought they screwed up and did the grand finale really early," he said.
It soon became apparent something more serious had occurred. "It was kind of a miracle that nobody was killed," Stark said.
Russell, who ran the Duluth Convention and Visitors Bureau at the time of the explosion, saw the initial sparks, and knew something was wrong.
"My immediate thought as I was running over there," he said Tuesday, "was there would be injuries, fatalities. As it turned out, nobody was seriously hurt. But it was a show we all remember."
A different company, Pyrotechnic Display of Clear Lake, Minn., manages the show these days and has for a number of years, said Hank Martinsen, properties services manager for the city of Duluth.
The city coordinates the event with Pyrotechnic Display, a responsibility that fell to Visit Duluth until last year. The $50,000 budget for the show is financed from tourism tax revenues, Martinsen said. In 1988, the show had a $33,000 budget, or roughly the equivalent of $70,500 today.
Duluth has often battled St. Paul for the rights to brag about having the state's largest fireworks display. But St. Paul's show has been canceled for this year, at least, because of budgetary constraints, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported last week.