During a fireworks show at the Seattle Center, an errant skyrocket lands in a crowd and explodes, injuring 18, on July 4, 1972.

  • By Phil Dougherty
  • Posted 6/27/2010
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9468
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On July 4, 1972, an errant skyrocket veers off course during a Fourth of July fireworks show at the Seattle Center. The five-inch shell lands in a large crowd just north of the International Fountain and explodes into multiple balls of fire, injuring 18 people. It’s the last Fourth of July fireworks show at the Center. 

A Rare Treat

July 4, 1972, was a sunny and hot day in Seattle (a record high of 91 was reported at Boeing Field), but by nightfall temperatures were in the high 70s.  Breezy winds from earlier in the day calmed to near zero as darkness fell; it was a perfect night to see the Fourth of July fireworks at the Seattle Center.  

And it was also a rare treat for Seattle Center.  Typically the fireworks shows that were sponsored by the American Legion were held at Green Lake.  But the City of Seattle had requested that the show be moved from Green Lake in 1972, citing the high cost of having police and other city employees at the event. (This so irked the Green Lake Chamber of Commerce that it got approval from the City to stage its own Fourth of July fireworks at the lake, which ended up being staffed by many Seattle policemen.)  The Legion approached the Seattle Center about co-sponsoring the fireworks show at Seattle Center, and the Center agreed.     

As darkness fell tens of thousands of people crammed into Seattle Center for the show. Many congregated around the International Fountain, just west of where the fireworks were set off. The fireworks were shot from the west to the east end of Memorial Stadium, and were designed to explode so that fallout would be over the concrete roof covering the stadium’s northern bleachers.  

Blobs of Fire 

The show went off without a hitch for its first 20 minutes, and by 10:40 p.m. there were only a few rockets left to shoot. Then a five-inch aerial shell, one of the largest used in the show, was shot into the air. It was designed to explode at 700 to 800 feet. But the shell’s time-delay fuse failed, and it did not explode as planned.  Instead the rocket abruptly changed direction (one witness said it appeared to “break off” as it went up), veered west, and slammed into the crowd about 20 feet north of the International Fountain. On impact it exploded into brilliant balls of silver, red, and green.  A witness, identified by the Times as Mrs. Daniel Ray of Bellevue, described what happened:             

 “It went straight up and we watched its tracer, but nothing happened, then, anyway. Then we heard a thud and those blobs of fire about the size of golf balls started shooting around. More of them came our way but some seemed to drift to the other side of where it landed -- it was only about 10 or 12 feet from us. ... I saw a man standing nearby and his shirt was on fire. He was trying to beat out the flames ... . I hurried over and took the blanket the man had been sitting on and smothered the fire and then helped him out of his shirt with others who came to help. Most surprising was how calm everyone seemed to stay and how they went to the aid of those who got burned. There was one lady whose whole dress had caught fire and they had to  strip it off. Most of all we were glad it wasn’t any worse for us. It very well could have been” (“Crowd Stayed Calm at Fireworks Mishap”).  

One in a Million

Ray’s 12-year-old daughter, Marie, was among the 18 people injured in the mishap. Nearly all of the injuries were caused by burns to various parts of the body, from legs to heads, as the result of being hit by the spewing fireballs. Many of the victims went to nearby hospitals for treatment, but nearly all were quickly released. One victim, an elderly woman with neck burns, was kept overnight at Group Health as a precaution. She was released the next day.  

The show was staged by Northwest Display Fireworks Company of Bellevue. A representative of the company, Daniel Pawlak, explained to reporters that the chances were one in a million that a shell would have three malfunctions at once -- first the failure of the time-delay fuse, followed by the rocket veering off course, and finally, exploding on impact with the ground. Regarding the shell’s explosion on impact, Pawlak said “They shouldn’t be that sensitive. I’ve never seen such a thing” (“Future Of Fireworks At Center Undecided”).

Maybe not, but Center officials quickly learned their lesson. Within three days of the accident it was clear that there would be no more fireworks at the Seattle Center on the Fourth of July. Fireworks shows continued at Green Lake, and in the 1980s moved to Lake Union.

Sources: Wayne Jacobi, “Several In Crowd Injured By ‘Dud’ Rocket At Center,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 5, 1972, pp. A-1, A-4;  Chris Goldsmith, “How Rocket Ran Crazy at Center,” Ibid., July 6, 1972, pp. A-1, A-16;  “Faulty Rocket Hurts Spectators,” Seattle Times, July 5, 1972, p. A-5;  Robert Barr, “Crowd Stayed Calm at Fireworks Mishap,” Ibid., July 5, 1972, p. A-5;  Charles Aweeka, “Future of Fireworks at Center Undecided,” Ibid., July 5, 1972, p. C-2;  Sam Sperry, “No More Fireworks Displays At Center, Director Urges,” Ibid., July 7, 1972, p. A-1; “History for Seattle Boeing, WA, Tuesday, July 4, 1972,” Weather Underground website accessed April 10, 2010, (http://www.wunderground.com/history/airport/KBFI/1972/7/4/DailyHistory.html?req_city=NA&req_state=NA&req_statename=NA).

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