Rocket’s red glare injures three in Sitka fireworks mishap

At least three people were injured — one seriously — when fireworks accidentally detonated in a crowd during Sitka’s Independence Day celebration.

Fireworks light up the Sitka Channel in 2018. The show has been held over the water for over two decades, but some people prefer to watch from the Japonski Island side. (KCAW photo/Rachel Cassandra)

The incident occurred shortly before midnight on July 3, during the finale of the half-hour show.

Sitka Fire Chief Dave Miller was standing by with a fire engine and ambulance, about 150 feet away from the fireworks area on the old boat ramp near the UAS Sitka building. A crowd of onlookers was gathered about one hundred yards down the beach in a grassy area by the Mt. Edgecumbe ballfield.

Over the course of the finale, medics were first summoned by a 911 call to attend a man who had suffered an eye injury by the ballfield. Next, they were flagged over to the beach.

“Right there in the grass there were two people down, and they appeared to be to have been struck by fireworks in some way,” Miller said.

The two victims were the adult sisters Karen and Michelle Maytorena, according to a social media fundraising campaign circulating in Sitka. Miller says both were transported by ambulance to the Mt. Edgecumbe Medical Center. Karen was subsequently medevacked to Seattle for additional treatment.

Miller doesn’t know how many others were in the area at the time. The fireworks were so bright, it was hard to tell exactly what happened.

“It looks like something maybe tipped over, fell over, or got knocked over,” said Miller, “and some of the fireworks appeared to have taken off in different directions, rather than up.”

KCAW News spoke with a pyrotechnician who confirms that there was a malfunction during the finale, which “for reasons unknown” launched more quickly than planned, causing some of the fireworks to prematurely detonate while still loaded in the tubes. The subsequent explosion may have forced other, unfired tubes off-aim.

The late-night fireworks on July 3 are a long tradition in Sitka, sponsored for about the last 20 years by Petro Marine. This year, the Hames Corporation took on the job for the first time. However, the location of the show, set-up, and crew have been consistent for many years.

As of Monday afternoon a GoFundMe campaign for Karen and Michelle’s Recovery Expenses had raised over $5,000.