June 5, 2019 is a date that may be etched in the minds of Roswell residents forever.
On that day 12 City of Roswell Fire Department firefighters suffered injuries when a warehouse near the Roswell International Air Center exploded.
The firefighters were preparing fireworks for the Fourth of July when an aerial shell was ignited with an electric match, read an investigation from the New Mexico Fire Marshal’s office, leading to the ignition of other explosives in the building.
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Two firefighters suffered extensive burn injuries and were transported to a burn unit in Lubbock, Texas.
Firefighter Hoby Bonham was released from the burn unit on June 29, 2019, but his colleague firefighter Jeff Stroble died July 21, 2019 from his injuries.
It’s a painful memory according to City of Roswell spokesperson Todd Wildermuth who said “no one really wants to revisit that.”
Former Roswell Mayor Dennis Kintigh said June 5, 2019 reminded him there’s a “dark side” to the firefighting profession.
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“In a sense these are individuals who choose to put themselves in a position where a lot of people wouldn’t go. Most of them don’t even think twice about it,” he said.
Kintigh a former New Mexico State legislator and two-term Mayor of Roswell said City personnel went into “emergency mode” after reports of the initial explosion.
“This was a very challenging time. (There was) a lot of stress for the firefighters and their families and ultimately we lost one and the other one recovered and eventually retired from the Fire Department,” he said.
Kintigh said the explosion was the reason the City of Roswell contracted a private company to manage its annual fireworks show.
He said it was always assumed that firefighters were the correct personnel to handle the fireworks and preparations for the City’s Independence Day celebrations.
“It’s not a primary job for firefighters. I think you’re going to see everybody moving to the professional fireworks people,” he said. “I think that is the ultimate reality.”
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The tragedy also led other municipalities to reflect on safety. The City of Carlsbad Fire Department produced its last show in 2019, said Fire Chief Richard Lopez. Since then, the City of Carlsbad has contracted with Texas-based Precision Fireworks for its fireworks productions, according to City of Carlsbad City Council records.
“We set up amazing firework shows for clients in Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico,” stated Precision’s website.
Lorraine Carli, vice president of outreach and advocacy for the Massachusetts-based National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) said the organization had no preference if municipal or volunteer firefighters produce a fireworks display or a professional fireworks company.
She said as long as the operator meets certain NFPA qualifications, shows may go on as planned.
Carli said NFP published a code for fireworks displays which ensures public and outdoor safety around professional fireworks programs.
“Fireworks are simply too dangerous and unpredictable in the hands of individuals to be used safely,” she said.
An NFP report written nearly three years ago estimated fireworks started an estimated 19,500 fires in the United States.
Fireworks accidents caused five deaths, 46 civilian injuries and $105 million in director property damage, the report cited.
Injury estimates in in 2018, noted an estimated 9,100 people visited hospital emergency rooms across the United States for fireworks related injuries, per a report from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.
Mike Smith can be reached at 575-628-5546 or by email at [email protected] or @ArgusMichae on Twitter.