During 16 years of operating Celebrations Fireworks, John Kemps remained thankful he could say “zero” when asked about the number of major accidents at his business.
That changed Friday morning as he drove to work and got the phone call he always dreaded — one of his workers was being rushed to the hospital with life-threatening injuries to her hands after an explosion at his Slatington facility.
Kemps was visibly shaken while talking outside his business after the explosion, which happened at the beginning of the busiest weekend of the year as his crews prepare fireworks for Fourth of July celebrations in the community.
“I am quite distraught because we have an employee who is injured quite badly,” he said. “I also know that the public wants what we do for the holiday and we don't want to disappoint them. But I am worried about her.”
He did not identify the 38-year-old Lehighton woman injured in the explosion that occurred around 7:15 a.m. at the facility at 7911 Seventh St.
An employee who called 911 about the injured woman told a police radio dispatcher he had to hang up when a second explosion suddenly rang out, fire officials said.
Around 8 a.m., dispatchers said fire crews had the blaze under control and began to ventilate the building. I am quite distraught because we have an employee who is injured quite badly. — John Kemps, owner of Celebration Fireworks
Kemps, owner and president of Celebration Fireworks, said he believes one of the electric matches — a device attached to each firework shell that enables operators to safely fire it from a distance — ignited and caused the first explosion.
He said the injured woman has been a part-time worker at the facility for several years and her father is also an employee.
Kemps said his employees were upset and and still processing what happened.
“They understand the nature of what we do and they know it could have been them,” Kemps said. “This is the first time we’ve had [an incident] since we started in 2001. I was trying to keep it to zero.”
Kemps said “from Day One” his company has used the electric matches to ignite fireworks because he believes it is much safer than hand lighting the explosives with a flare.
PHOTO GALLERY: Emergency crews respond to Celebrations Fireworks in Slatington early Friday, June 30, 2017, after a series of explosions.
At the scene Friday morning, several fire companies were at the plant and the entrance to it was closed. Emergency radio calls said the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives had been contacted and agents from the closest field office would respond. Messages left for the ATF were not returned.
The Allentown Bomb Squad was also on site.
According to its website, Celebration Fireworks is a regional fireworks display company serving eastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware. The company designs and produces its own equipment for use in professional displays for holidays, community festivals, weddings, corporate events and more. The company has been open since 2001 and at the Slatington location since 2012.
Kemps said anywhere from five to 15 employees are working at the facility on any given day preparing fireworks, and there are hundreds of employees to help set up displays.
Fireworks displays in Bethlehem, Breinigsville and Lehighton are some of Celebration Fireworks’ biggest shows, but the company is also involved in 20 other displays, Kemps said.
By Friday afternoon, authorities determined that Celebrations Fireworks crews would be able to continue to prepare fireworks displays for the holiday weekend.
Emergency crews were on the scene where a 38-year-old woman suffered "life-threatening" injuries in a series of explosions Friday morning at Celebrations Fireworks in Slatington. (LEHIGH VALLEY DRONE / SPECIAL TO THE MORNING CALL)
But no fireworks will be manufactured by the company until investigators tried to piece together exactly how the explosions occurred.
As fire crews arrived, they found the injured woman in an office away from the explosion site, said Slatington Fire Chief Jason Nicholas.
Crews applied tourniquets to both arms, which were burned and damaged by flying shrapnel, Nicholas said.
The explosions and blaze were ruled accidental, but the ATF would still have to determine exactly what sparked them, Nichols said.
There is structural damage to the barn area where the explosion occurred, but a storage and office facility were not affected, Nicholas said.
Some fireworks that were damaged in the explosion were detonated in a nearby field, Nicholas said.
Kemps spoke briefly about the injured woman.
"It pains me deeply because she is a very nice lady and she has been very helpful to us,” he said. “I hope she has really good surgeons.”
Emergency crews perform a controlled detonation after an earlier explosion at Celebrations Fireworks in Slatington on Friday morning. (LEHIGH VALLEY DRONE / SPECIAL TO THE MORNING CALL)
Owner confirms worker badly hurt in fireworks plant blast
The Associated Press
An apparent ignition malfunction at a Pennsylvania fireworks company caused at least one explosion that badly injured a worker, the owner said Friday.
John Kemps, owner and president of Celebration Fireworks said an electric match might have worked improperly, causing the blast about 7:20 a.m. The electric match devices are attached to each firework shell and are used to ignite them.
Emergency workers said the female employee's injury is potentially life-threatening, Kemps said. The woman's name was not immediately released.
Kemps said the woman is a part-time employee whose father also works at the plant in Washington Township, near Slatington, about 70 miles northwest of Philadelphia.
"Accidents unfortunately do happen in this industry," Kemps told The (Allentown) Morning Call at the scene. "I am quite distraught because we have an employee who is injured quite badly. I also know that the public wants what we do for the holiday, and we don't want to disappoint them. But I am worried about her."
Kemps said the other workers "understand the nature of what we do, and they know it could have been them. This is the first time we've had (an explosion) since we started in 2001. I was trying to keep it to zero."
Five to 15 workers are typically at the plant each day, Kemps said. The company produces fireworks and displays for weddings, holidays, community events and other occasions in eastern Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey, according to its website. The facility is licensed by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Kemps said.
The ATF and federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration were responding to the explosion and fire. The length of their investigation — and whether the company must remain shut down during it — could impact Celebration's ability to fill Fourth of July orders, Kemps said.
A Lehigh County 911 dispatch supervisor said crews had the fire under control within an hour, but would remain on the scene indefinitely.