OCEAN CITY — There was a fireworks show on the beach downtown on the Fourth of July, but not at the appointed time and place.
As crews were off-loading fireworks from a box truck on the beach at Dorchester Street last Sunday morning in preparation for the Fourth of July show later that night, one of the explosives detonated unintentionally, causing a chain reaction that set off other fireworks at the scene. The result was a series of explosions and an impromptu fireworks show that sent a plume of smoke into the sky that could be seen from miles around.
Around 10:15 a.m. last Sunday, the Ocean City Fire Department responded to a reported vehicle fire on the beach at Dorchester Street. It was quickly learned the vehicle fire was an unintentional detonation of a fireworks display at a box truck preparing for the Fourth of July show. At least one person was injured although none involved needed transport to the hospital for injuries sustained in the incident.
The beach was evacuated over a couple of blocks and a perimeter was quickly established around the explosion area. In addition, an area of the Boardwalk was also cordoned off in an abundance of caution as the situation was contained.
“Our Fire Marshals are on the scene and will investigate the cause of the unintentional discharge,” said Ocean City Fire Chief Richie Bowers at the time. “Prior to the fireworks being off-loaded from the vehicle, fire marshals secured a safe zone around the fireworks and put other safety protocols in place. It is this very zone and safety protocols that kept anyone else from being injured.”
The fire was allowed to burn itself out and the fire marshal’s office continued to investigate. Out of an abundance of caution, the Town of Ocean City announced around noon on Sunday all planned fireworks shows for the Fourth of July, including the downtown show and another at Northside Park had been cancelled. In addition, the planned fireworks show at Seacrets in midtown was also cancelled. While there were no official fireworks shows in Ocean City on the Fourth of July, anecdotally there was no shortage of private displays around the resort on the holiday.
On Monday, a team effort that included the town’s fire marshal’s office, the Ocean City Fire Department, the Ocean City Police Department, the Beach Patrol, the Maryland State Fire Marshal’s Office and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) began systematically destroying the remaining fireworks on the scene.
Ocean City Bomb Squad technicians spent more than eight hours methodically assessing, sorting and preparing the fireworks for disposal. At around 6:20 p.m. on Monday, Ocean City Bomb Squad personnel, assisted by the state fire marshal’s office and the ATF, had safely destroyed the remaining fireworks on the beach at Dorchester Street after the unintentional discharge on Sunday. The town’s public works department completed cleanup operations and the beach was reopened on Tuesday morning.
“As of today [Tuesday], all areas of the beach and Boardwalk have been reopened, including the return of service for the Boardwalk tram,” said Bowers. “I want to thank the Ocean City community, our businesses, residents and visitors for their patience and understanding during this unexpected occurrence. Unsafe fireworks are not only dangerous, but, in some cases, can be deadly. Our team of professionals from the Ocean City Bomb Squad, who were assisted by various other city departments, did a phenomenal job ensuring that no citizens, visitors or first-responders were injured.”
The Ocean City Fire Marshal’s Office investigation has determined one of the fireworks being unloaded was prematurely and unintentionally discharged, causing more fireworks to be discharged. According to the fire marshal’s office, the exact reason of the unintended discharge had not been identified as of midweek, but a damaged or faulty firework product could not be ruled out. The fire marshal’s office also determined there was no indication of any criminal or intentional intent at this point in the investigation.
The Starfire Corporation, the company that provided the fireworks for the town’s Fourth of July shows, had no comment on the incident. It remains uncertain who is on the hook financially for the botched shows. In April, the town contracted with Starfire for the 2021 Fourth of July shows and future shows after its former provider opted out because of COVID issues. During the pandemic last summer, most fireworks shows, including Ocean City’s, were cancelled or postponed, and the town’s former provider took a financial hit and laid off crews, which is how the town ended up contracting with Starfire for this year’s Fourth of July show and future dates.
According to the draft contract presented in April, the cost of the Fourth of July shows in Ocean City was $55,000. There were provisions in the draft contract for postponements or cancellations because of inclement weather, or COVID-related limitations on gathering sizes, for example, but no mention of a cancellation due to an incident such as last Sunday.
City Manager Doug Miller said on Tuesday he would coordinate with Special Events Director Frank Miller on sorting out the contract details and fiscal responsibility, but those discussions have not yet happened.
“We obviously were concentrating on safety issues on Sunday and Monday,” said Doug Miller. “I will say that the fireworks company was very cooperative throughout all of the events on Sunday and Monday. We had talked about alternate shoots, but that was just throwing out ideas and nothing was decided on.”
Meanwhile, some businesses likely took a hit because of the closure of some areas of the Boardwalk in the area of the explosion on the Fourth of July and into Monday. At least one Boardwalk bar posted on social media on Sunday that it remained open and patrons could enter the business through a back door.
In addition, the town’s Boardwalk tram service was suspended on Sunday and Monday and resumed operations on Tuesday. Public Works Director Hal Adkins said the initial plan was to have the fireworks detonations completed by 4 p.m. on Monday afternoon, but when it ran past 6 p.m., the decision was made to suspend tram operations for the night on Monday.
Videos of the fireworks exploding on the beach can be viewed at facebook.com/thedispatchocmd.