The giant mushroom clouds billowing over Harding Park were the first sign that something was wrong. Hubbard citizens who'd been coming to the fireworks show at the Founder's Day Fair for years had never seen anything like this.
One man recognized the powerful explosions. "I've read about them," says Chris Fox, who served in the military. "The Army doesn't use them anymore, but they're to simulate a nuclear blast. It's basically a 55-gallon drum filled with diesel fuel. Makes a nice mushroom cloud."
The exhibitor, Van Burnett, had saved these for the grand finale of the July 2002 show. These fiery explosions signaled the culmination of a half-hour program. They also signaled the beginning of the end for Burnett and his crew of backwoods pyrotechnics enthusiasts.
When the drums blew, the trajectory of the remaining fireworks changed. Eighteen-year-old Nicole Pringle saw a single white streak, much too close to the ground. A rocket landed in a nearby parking lot, while sparks from others rained down on the tennis court. Patrick McDowell watched a projectile with an orange trail shoot into a tangle of people. "I saw people flying backwards," he would later write in a police report.
Rebecca Reuff, at the fair with her son, described "debris flying everywhere. People rolling, running, moaning, and screaming."
The people of this Youngstown suburb were under attack, running for their lives, ducking behind dugouts and hamburger stands. An errant shell exploded next to the Fox family. "It felt like somebody hit me upside the head with a two-by-four," Fox recalls. Both his eardrums were blown out. Cardboard shrapnel lacerated his wife Michelle as she protected their son with her body. Eventually, Chris would regain most of his hearing, but that one homemade rocket did more damage than a career in the military.
"Fifteen years in the field artillery, and I have to go out to a park to get blown up," says Chris. Michelle's most vivid memory is of the smell; it seemed like everything was burning.
Somewhere in all this chaos was Kenneth Mauch, assistant chief of Hubbard's volunteer fire department. For him, it was a fitting end to a real bastard of a day.
That afternoon, most of the firefighters were busy roping off the boccie ball field for the fireworks display or downing a hearty pancake breakfast at the Chamber of Commerce. But Mauch had to see to the paperwork for the fireworks exhibitor, which he'd never done before.
"I asked a couple of other inspectors if they had ever done a fireworks inspection," Mauch would write later in his report. "They said they had and that there was nothing to it." For good measure, on his way out of the firehouse, he grabbed a few inspection reports from previous years. He'd look them over, see what the chief had done before, and give it his best shot.
At Harding Park, Mauch worked with Police Chief Todd Coonce to secure an area near the parking lot, so that spectators' cars would not be too close. They talked about blocking off the northeast portion to keep the cars farther away from the explosives -- but then, where would those people park? "We were going to think about it and discuss it later," he wrote. Instead, they just gave up. There didn't seem to be an effective way to do it.
Later, Mayor George Praznik stopped by the fire department's fair booth, talking excitedly about the fireworks display. He had asked for "the big guns" this year and thought the exhibitor might need extra room. So Mauch hopped on Mayor Praznik's golf cart and the two drove out to the edge of the park. Both agreed that they should get written permission from the farmer who owned the nearby hay field, in case they needed to shift some of the fireworks there. According to Mauch's report, the mayor said that "after two or three glasses of Dago Red, [the farmer] would agree to anything." Homemade red wine, known as Dago Red, is huge in Hubbard.
Praznik returned a short time later with the farmer's permission. Mauch wrote in his report that he asked the mayor whether he really should be driving the golf cart, hinting that the mayor himself might have had too much homemade wine.
"I don't know where he even got something like that," Praznik protests in an interview. He is no longer mayor of Hubbard. When he ran for reelection in 2004, he got clobbered.
It had been his decision to move the fireworks from the local high school to the park a couple years before, because, he says, "I felt it was, you know, uh, 100 percent more safer."
"That's why the mayor's not in office anymore," says the current mayor, Arthur Magee. "I don't want to pick on George. We were friends. We aren't anymore -- he doesn't talk to me."
Mayor Magee can at least empathize with Praznik's love of Dago Red. While he doesn't drink anymore, Magee describes the wine like a war veteran recalling a woman he saw on a beach in Fiji. "It was outstanding, because it was pure," he says. "Anybody that knows anybody or anything can always find Dago Red in our area. If you're down this way, we'll find someone who has some Dago Red for you."
Parents screaming their children's names in the dark. Scattered grass fires. The smell of sulfur, heavy and pungent.
Beside the fire trucks at the edge of the crowd, Chris Fox picked himself up and tended to his bleeding wife. That's when he first met Van Burnett. "Somebody came running over in a panic and immediately started up on a story about us being in the wrong place," Fox says.
Burnett had every reason to freak out. He was involved in a large (and largely illegal) operation that was moving explosives across state lines, using forged documents. Now there were wounded people screaming in Harding Park. There would be questions.
The state fire marshal and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms would be asking those questions, and multiple felony charges against Burnett and his buddies would follow.
According to the indictment, a local construction worker, Robert McAloney, made the fireworks Burnett used for events in cities like Mantua and Garrettsville. McAloney also supplied the money and often drove the explosives in from other states. Ingredients such as potassium perchlorate -- an explosive more powerful than the stuff Timothy McVeigh used in Oklahoma City -- were purchased in bulk from Nite Lite Pyrotechnics, in Kentucky. In his garage and at a self-storage facility in Willoughby, McAloney had stored over 3,000 pounds of explosives.
McAloney was a convicted felon (drug trafficking), and Burnett had skipped out on a charge in New York stemming from improper handling of fireworks. Their backgrounds made it impossible for them to secure the licenses needed to purchase explosives, so they enlisted the help of friends with clean records. McAloney was even able to use a note, written in childish scrawl, for at least one large purchase.
"[Burnett] was deceiving everybody," says former Hubbard Fire Chief David Kyle. "I mean, if you're given a forged certificate and don't know the difference, what are you going to do?"
Bob Sharp, investigator for the state marshal's bureau, notes another troubling aspect. "I think a problem that's inherent with fire departments in the state of Ohio is, we have these small, nonpaid departments, and I don't know what their level of training is. It can be very confusing."
On December 15, McAloney, Burnett, and their partners were arraigned in federal court in Cleveland on several counts of felony conspiracy. Most of the men showed up in flannel shirts and once-a-week slacks, looking confused and scared. Burnett, the mastermind, is a short fellow with a bushy mustache and an awkward, leaning posture.
Even the prosecutors concede that despite their acquiring seriously dangerous materials, these guys weren't out to hurt anyone. They're just hillbillies who like to blow things up. "You know, they're fireworks fanatics," U.S. Prosecuting Attorney Robert Corts shrugs. "They were just doing it illegally." A trial has been set for February 7.
Burnett professes confusion over how all this ended up on his shoulders. The state had given him an exhibitor's license. Mayors had called him, asking for "the big guns." He just gave them what they wanted.
He blames the Hubbard mess on the volunteer firefighters. "They were there to protect the audience, but were too busy watching the show to do anything," he says in an interview. "I'm a small guy. I've had to take the brunt of this thing."
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