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Fireworks merchants say wares are safe

April 25, 2013

Michael O'Neill, of Woonsocket, owner of Slo Jo's Fireworks on Main Street in Woonsocket, points out the lock and load type of fireworks purchased by the Boston Marathon bombers. These explosive type of fireworks are illegal in Rhode Island. (Photo/Ernest A. Brown)

WOONSOCKET – Local fireworks retailers say while it is indeed possible to make a bomb if you harvest enough gunpowder from certain fireworks, they don’t believe their wares are a threat to public safety.

A New Hampshire fireworks store has told the FBI that it sold $400 worth of fireworks in February to accused Boston bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who reportedly used gunpowder from two "Lock and Load" re-loadable mortar kits to make the explosives that killed three people and wounded more than 180 others on April 15.

There have been cases in the past where fireworks have been used by suspected terrorists in bomb making, including a man who attempted to detonate a car bomb in Times Square.

But Michael O’Neill, owner of Slo Jo’s Fireworks in Woonsocket, says he’s not worried about people coming into his Main Street shop to buy pyrotechnic devices for bomb-making purposes.

“First of all, I don’t have that kind of stuff in my store and, second, it seems like a lot of work when you can just go out and buy gunpowder online or at any ammunition store,” he says. “You can’t be worried that everyone who walks into your store could be a potential terrorist.”

Fireworks are legal in New Hampshire and Rhode Island, but not in Massachusetts. Although Rhode Island legalized the sale of fireworks in 2010, some fireworks remain illegal in the state. They include any fireworks that travel more than six feet into the air, or those that make a loud bang sound.

Only sparklers and ground devices such as cylindrical fountains, cone fountains, illuminating torches, ground spinners and toy smoke devices are legal for consumer purchase in Rhode Island.

“Class C fireworks are your consumer fireworks, or what I like to call, ‘safe and sane’ fireworks. Things like sparkers and smoke balls. They don’t explode, don’t have a report and are not aerial,” says O’Neill.

According to O’Neill, anything that contains more than 500 grams of total pyrotechnic content is considered a Class B firework.

“This is the display stuff you see at carnivals and commercial fireworks shows. It’s illegal to sell them in Rhode Island,” he says.

According to state law, a person must be 16 years of age to purchase and possess fireworks in Rhode Island.

“My store policy is that I don’t sell fireworks to anyone under 18,” says O’Neill. “I may lose some business, but then I don’t have any problems, either.”

“Three Finger Eddie,” known by his peers in the pyrotechnics community as the Godfather of Fireworks, says he doesn’t think that fireworks materials alone produced the powerful explosions set off in Boston.

It was reported this week that the Boston Marathon suspects used gunpowder from fireworks to build one of their two pressure-cooker bombs, but Eddie – real name Edwud Twyer - who has been in the fireworks business since 1960, says consumer-grade fireworks, particularly mortar kits, which have less than a pound and a half of gunpowder, wouldn’t have been enough to detonate the bombs used in Boston.

“What they bought were ‘lock and load’ re-loadable mortar kits, which contain four tubes and 24 shells each,” says Twyer, president of Three Finger Eddie’s Fireworks in Warwick.

According to Twyer, who also owns fireworks stores in New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Connecticut, the kits are typically used for amateur fireworks displays. Users load one shell at a time into a launch tube, and when it is shot in the air, the shell bursts, creating a colorful and noisy display

Each shell is loaded with two forms of powder - a black powder, which is the explosive ingredient that causes the shell to burst - and effect powder, which creates the colorful lights and most of the noise.

“It’s my opinion it would be almost impossible for that class of fireworks to produce they kind of explosion we saw in Boston,” said Twyer, adding the suspects may have used an alternate fuel source.

O’Neill says he will continue to run his fireworks retail store the way he always has by offering “safe and sane fireworks” as allowed by state law and emphasizing the safe use of those products.

“We do not sell firecrackers, rockets or any other non-legal fireworks,” he says. “Our motto is stay safe and only use safe fireworks.”

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