Regional Public Journalism
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

Shows Go On For Northwest Fireworks Company 'Shaken' By Workplace Death

People in the fireworks business say their job is to make people happy. But as the Fourth of July approaches, Entertainment Fireworks in Tenino, Washington, one of the largest fireworks companies in the Northwest, is reeling.

On June 18, a longtime seasonal employee was killed in an on-the-job explosion and fire.

A Strange Noise

Ken Julian, vice-president of operations and one of the co-owners of the business, said, “I’m not afraid to say I’m shaken. I really am.”

Shaken because of what happened. Four employees were preparing commercial fireworks for a show. Something went terribly wrong. Julian was in the office when he heard a strange noise.

“It originally sounded like somebody was taking a hammer and beating the side of this metal building," he said. "There were three loud bangs.”

Julian explained that in the fireworks business any sound out of the ordinary is reason enough to investigate. There were more bangs.

“And by the time we got outside," Julian said, "the fire was raging out there.”

'We Just Didn't Want To Join This Club'

Three men escaped. A fourth did not. They eventually managed to pull 75-year-old William Hill out. But he could not be saved. Hill was a retired state employee who Julian said loved fireworks and often helped out here during the busy Fourth of July season.

Julian said Hill was workers fitting what are known as “electric matches” to the fuses for fireworks when he was killed.

U.S. Department of Labor records show there have been more than a dozen fatal accidents in the fireworks industry since 2003. Julian still can’t believe his friend and employee was killed on the job.

“We’ve always heard the stories when it happened to somebody else," he said. "And you know we just didn’t want to join this club.’

But they have. And it happened just as the company was preparing more than 100 Fourth of July-related fireworks shows for clients in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and even Alaska. Julian said everyone here is grieving, but there was never even a discussion about suspending operations.

'He Would Have Wanted The Show To Go On'

“I’m still filled with a deep amount of sorrow and a lot of regret," he said. "And I know our people are trying to work through it, but we have a deadline and we’re doing the best can to muster and we’re going to do as well as we can.”

Brandon Weaver was there the day of the accident and rushed to help. Now he wants to keep his mind off what he saw. Instead he’s trying to imagine the families who will be thrilled by these fireworks.

“Put those smiles on all those people’s faces, that’s what it’s all about," Weaver said. "And our co-worker who passed away would have wanted the show to go on and that’s what we’re doing.”

Bill Hill’s widow, Pat, said her husband would have been disappointed if the company had stopped work.

The spot where the fire happened is now a raw patch of dirt surrounded by grass. The burned out shed has been knocked down and piled up nearby.

In its place are two giant concrete blocks painted white. Julian said they will help anchor an industrial-sized wind chime that victim Bill Hill loved. This spot will now become a memorial to him.

“There will never be anything on that ground except the memorial,” Julian said.

The investigation into what exactly triggered the fire and explosion is ongoing. Julian said once there’s an official cause, he plans to share lessons learned with others in his industry.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."