By Connie Leinbach
There will be no professional fireworks on Ocracoke July 4, but maybe next.
Ocracoke has not forgotten the horrific explosion the morning of July 4, 2009, when, while unpacking the truck for the evening show, the fireworks suddenly exploded.
Four of the five fireworks crew were killed and a few locals barely missed the same fate when, just before the explosion, they walked around to the other side of one of the OVFD trucks already parked at the scene.
The pain of that event has not quite gone away.
The community remains almost equally divided on the issue of professional fireworks, with some advocating for them (what’s Fourth of July without fireworks?) and others still wary even with the recent discovery of a way to do low-level fireworks in Silver Lake Harbor.
Ocracoke Civic and Business Association sponsors and organizes the day-long schedule of events every July 4. (See page 22 for the schedule.)
Any kind of fireworks—from sparklers to bottle rockets—have been banned since 2003 on Ocracoke after some fireworks brought by visitors accidentally caught the marsh on fire near Jackson Dunes.
Dick Jacoby, president of the Ocracoke Volunteer Fire Department, has said that had the volunteers not contained it, the entire village could have caught fire.
Fireworks danger is because of the ever-constant island wind that in the summer blows predominantly southwest, or from the ocean inward.
Wind blew embers from those personal fireworks into the marsh grasses.
In 2007, fireworks debris from a professional display held on the beach blew onto the grass near the airport also causing a fire.
In April, Clayton Gaskill, vice president of the OCBA, went to a Durham Bulls game in Durham.
At the end of the game, a vehicle came onto the diamond and shot off fireworks that went up about 200 feet. Perhaps Ocracoke could do the same on a barge out in Silver Lake?
The logistics would involve a barge big enough to house the fireworks and enough clearance around it, also approvals from the Coast Guard and others.
And while a low-level display might work in Silver Lake, what if it’s windy and embers blow onto boats moored at the docks?
Rudy Austin, OCBA president, said at a recent meeting that islander Darren Burrus has a raft barge that would be big enough for the fireworks and small enough for the harbor.
However, Austin said that he as president of the OCBA will never sign off on fireworks again.
The OCBA and Austin personally were named in a lawsuit following the 2009 explosion, and both recently were taken off that lawsuit.
“We hired an upstanding, professional group to do those fireworks,” Austin said, and still, the OCBA got sued.
Sundae Horn, the OCBA travel and tourism director, contacted the company that does the low-level fireworks who have indicated they could do it.
While the OCBA does not want to be the entity that contracts with this company, someone else in the community could do so. No one has contacted the county about this, said Bill Rich, Hyde County manager.
The Occupancy Tax Board has said they would entertain funding professional fireworks (at a cost of $15,000 to $20,000), but they are not an organization and could not coordinate it.
2011 was the last year the OCBA investigated having fireworks on the island.
Fred Westervelt looked into having fireworks on a barge in the Pamlico Sound. While Burrus has several barges none are large enough.
“A barge (out in the sound) would need 2,400 square feet of surface area plus a bomb shelter for the workers to dive into while setting the fireworks off,” Westervelt said.
While there are some barges in Morehead City large enough for this, it would take a day or two of towing to get here at $10,000 a day.
He looked into having them launched on Big Foot Island out in the Sound, but that belongs to the Department of the Interior and would also need Audubon Society approval, both of whom declined.
Westervelt looked into the area where Community Park is being built, but Fire Chief Albert O’Neal nixed that because of the marsh grasses.
He looked at several other sites,
but none were feasible.
For the schedule of July 4th events from morning into the evening, see page 22.