It was a typical July 4th as we made our way home after enjoying the evening with friends at the fireworks display at the high school. Crowded streets were alive with familiar crackles and pops, sounding, we imagined, like small arms fire in some not-so-distant battlefield. We commented on how remarkable it was that so many parents were setting off these illegal devices for the amusement of their children and hoped that no one would be seriously injured. They seemed to be everywhere, including on our block and in our alley. We guessed that so many people were engaging in the activity that the police would have a hard time finding and dealing with offenders.
We did not know then that some reckless amateurs, who use the celebration of our independence to indulge their desire to make things fly and explode, might soon bring a real and perilous consequence directly to our doorstep.
At 4 a.m., a nearby explosion jolted us from our sleep. Sirens immediately followed, then pounding on our front door, and shouted orders from a police officer to get out of the house. In casual conversation, we have sometimes pondered what we would try to take with us if our home ever caught fire. We now know the answer. In that horrific 60 seconds, you round up your children and run barefoot into the street, leaving everything behind.
Outside, we turned and glanced back through the side yard to see our neighbor’s garage, along with their four cars, engulfed in flames that must have reached 30 feet into the air. Our own garage, about 20 feet from our house, had also caught fire and an entire wall of that structure was burning – as well as the wooden fence connecting the garage to our back porch. We watched helplessly from across the street and were comforted on our neighbors’ porch (Thanks, Lisa and Mike Hobin), alternately grateful for everyone’s safety and fearing that we would lose everything.
Thanks to the heroic efforts of our police and fire department personnel, the fire was contained. It could have been so much worse. As it was, our neighbors’ garage no longer existed. All that remained were ashes and the charred skeletons of four automobiles. Our own garage, though standing, was damaged beyond repair. The intense heat of the fire had melted and distorted the siding on several houses, including our own. Our cars were damaged. But the interiors of the houses and their contents still stood unharmed. The police and firefighters have our deepest thanks.
It was several hours before we were allowed back inside. The next two days were a blur of conversations with insurance agents, adjustors, contractors, neighbors and our families as we relived the incident again and again. Our fear and relief began to give way to anger. A neighbor from down the street told us he had heard fireworks going off at our end of the alley as late as 3 a.m. Our anger grew at the thought of so many supposedly responsible citizens in this community who, every year about this time, are compelled to demonstrate to their children just how stupid grown people can really be.
There has been no official report made as we write this letter. We can’t say for certain who or what started the fire, though the numerous remnants from the firecrackers and bottle rockets littering our alley suggest a likely cause. Even if the cause is never confirmed and no one held responsible, we do know that we will not sit by and let another Independence Day celebration be hijacked by people who either don’t understand or don’t care about basic rules of safety or decency.
Our village has taken the time and trouble of declaring itself a Nuclear Weapons Free Zone. As well-meaning a gesture as that may be, far more meaningful would be an effective fireworks ordinance and enforcement policy. On our tree-lined streets of wood-frame homes, errant fireworks set off by reckless celebrants can truly become weapons of mass destruction. We as a community should no longer turn a blind eye to illegal and dangerous behavior. We can and should let our friends and neighbors know that if they choose to set off illegal fireworks, they will be reported to the authorities. Individually, we intend to formally petition the village board to enact and enforce legislation that deters and punishes conduct by those who choose to cause disruption and put families at risk. We invite those who share our concern to join us.