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posted: 7/5/2012 10:00 AM

Despite laws, illegal fireworks easily bring danger

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  • Hillside Fire Chief Michael Kuryla extinguishes a child-sized mannequin that was set ablaze Tuesday by a sparkler at a fireworks safety event sponsored by the Illinois Fire Safety Alliance to highlight the dangers of fireworks.

       Hillside Fire Chief Michael Kuryla extinguishes a child-sized mannequin that was set ablaze Tuesday by a sparkler at a fireworks safety event sponsored by the Illinois Fire Safety Alliance to highlight the dangers of fireworks.
    George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

  • Frank Hayes spent much of last year working to regain almost all of the mobility in his right hand after he was injured in an accident involving illegal fireworks during the Fourth of July.

       Frank Hayes spent much of last year working to regain almost all of the mobility in his right hand after he was injured in an accident involving illegal fireworks during the Fourth of July.
    Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer

  • Frank Hayes' hand after his fireworks accident last year.

      Frank Hayes' hand after his fireworks accident last year.
    courtesy of Frank Hayes

 
 

Besides noticing the usual vigilance for drunken driving and seat belt-wearing that Illinois State Police troopers employ this time of year, drivers pulled over near the Indiana or Wisconsin borders can expect to be questioned about fireworks as well.

Most fireworks are illegal in Illinois, but can be purchsed in Indiana or Wisconsin. Fireworks vendors in those states say Illinois residents make up a hefty chunk of their business this time of year. There are few safeguards in place to keep Illinois residents from buying the fireworks across state lines, and not many deterrents, either.

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But authorities want to do what they can.

"We're not pulling people over to check their trunks for fireworks, but we'll ask to look if we've got probable cause, particularly along those borders," said Monique Bond, a state police spokeswoman.

Beyond that, though, neither Illinois nor the neighboring states try very hard to control the flow of fireworks across the borders.

"You used to have to sign a waiver saying you're going to abide by the laws of whatever state you're going to let them off in," said Joe Zaradich, manager of Phantom Fireworks in Merillville, Ind. "The state (of Indiana) doesn't make us do that anymore."

Even extra taxes or fees on fireworks in Indiana and Wisconsin don't deter people from purchasing them. At the Phantom Fireworks store in Raymond, Wis. -- about 30 miles north of the Illinois border -- Racine County requires all customers to buy a $4 permit that allows them to set the fireworks off in that county, officials there said. In Indiana, fireworks customers are charged an additional 5 percent tax on all sales above the state's sales tax.

Access to more powerful fireworks is a little tighter in Wisconsin, where customers must ask an employee to fetch any of the mortar-style fireworks from storage behind the counter.

Possession of illegal fireworks in Illinois is a misdemeanor punishable by a maximum fine of up to $2,500 or less than a year in jail. Bond said state police do not track fireworks citations or arrests.

Hillside Fire Chief Michael Kuryla, who also serves as president of the Cook County Fire Chiefs Association, believes the state does its best to enforce fireworks laws.

"Because our laws are so strong, it does send a message that these are dangerous," he said. "We're doing all that we can. I don't know that more punitive laws would change anything."

Still, even when illegal fireworks cause injuries, authorities often won't charge anyone with a crime. Frank Hayes learned firsthand the dangers of illegal fireworks when he went to a neighbor's property to supervise his children as they watched fireworks being set off last year at this time.

Now, Hayes' right hand is a constant reminder of the dangers of illegal fireworks. Hayes, a 46-year-old father of three from Lake Villa, nearly lost the hand when he grabbed a mortar-style firework a neighbor set off that tipped over and was aimed at a crowd of children. As he sought to keep it from shooting at the children, the device exploded in his right hand, breaking bones, shearing off the tip of his ring finger and nearly severing his thumb. No charges were filed in the wake of the accident, Hayes said.

"When it happened, I looked down and didn't even recognize my hand," Hayes said. "I thought it would be a number of years before I would be able to use my hand again."

Fortunately, Hayes has regained nearly all the mobility of his hand. He credits the work of doctors and nurses at MidAmerica Hand and Shoulder Clinic in Libertyville.

But he said the accident has taught many people around him about the dangers of fireworks, including his children who saw their anguished father suffering from the damage the fireworks caused.

"They've definitely become more cautious," he said.

"I wholeheartedly agree with the state ban on fireworks. Unfortunately, the ban in theory is a good idea, but in reality people don't abide by the rules."

Kuryla said fireworks-related injuries increase every year in Illinois. Even at a recent safety demonstration supervised by Kuryla, a mortar-style firework injured an onlooker. Kuryla said that while the minor burn injury was unfortunate, it was an example of how "unpredictably dangerous" fireworks truly are.

"People should use common sense and follow the law," he said.

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