July 4, 1988: Accidental fireworks explosion at Bayfront Park

On this day in Duluth in 1988, the “grand finale” portion of the Fourth Fest fireworks display went off 20 minutes early, creating a dazzling and dangerous display. According to the Duluth News Tribune, “a spectacular explosion apparently ignited by a dud shell…sent dozens of fireworks in all directions, raining sparks on the crowd, causing minor burns and setting fires that threatened to spread to liquid propane gas tanks on the downtown waterfront.” “Dozens” was a bit of an underestimation—it was later reported that between 1,500 and 1,800 shells exploded within seconds of one another. Many of the shells were under tarps, so instead of shooting straight up, they were directed sideways—right at the fireworks technicians. Six employees of Arrowhead Fireworks—which was hired to put on the display for a fee of $33,000—were treated for minor injuries, but none required hospitalization. Within 30 minutes of the event 30 firefighters and 11 firefighting vehicles were on the scene, and two Coast Guard vessels sprayed the area with water from the harbor. All fires were reported extinguished within 90 minutes, but the fire department was back the next morning to put out more smoldering debris. Arrowhead employees later described the scene as “hot, deafening and nightmarish.” Ten-year veteran Ty Gustafson, whose father owned the business, told reporters,“We were engulfed in it. I thought we were going to die. It was so hot, and the ringing and vibration of the (mortars)—I think that was worse than mortar lines in war, because they were launching right next to us.” Watch  the explosion in a video by KDLH TV3 News photographer Kris Berg on YouTube, here.

A hommade video of the July 4, 1988, fireworks explosion in DUluth. (Image: YouTube Screen Capture)