Mass. firefighter recovering after firework explodes on torso during setup

Walter "Wally" Shaw, a licensed master pyrotechnician, was wearing safety glasses and "was able to stop, drop and roll and put himself out," his father said


Will Broaddus
The Eagle-Tribune

NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. — Firefighter Walter "Wally" Shaw, of Townsend, was injured Sunday afternoon while setting up fireworks for North Andover's Independence Day celebration.

"His condition is stable," said Tony Shaw, Walter's father, who operates Toreku Tractor in Ayer. "He's feeling better. He's awake and conscious and able to talk to us."

Some portion of the fireworks display that Walter was working on at around 2:30 p.m. ignited and struck his upper body, his father said. A 2 1/2-inch section of an artery in his arm was "blown away" and Walter also sustained first and second-degree burns on his chest.

"They got the blood flow back to his hand in 50 minutes," Tony said. "He has feeling in his hand. They haven't closed it up yet. He will have to have a skin graft to close it up."

Walter, 34, was working part-time for Atlas PyroVision of Jaffrey, New Hampshire when he was injured, Tony said. His son is expected to miss work for some period of time, and donations to cover his expenses can be made at https://www.gofundme.com/f/nkrn2-help-the-helper.

Walter was immediately treated following the incident by firefighters, and was then transported to Lawrence General Hospital.

"Lawrence General realized he needed an artery graft immediately, and sent him to Beth Israel," Tony said. " Beth Israel was waiting for him and took him right into the surgery room and replaced the artery."

Doctors said that Walter's muscles, tendons and nerves appear to be okay, Tony said, but the swelling needs to subside before they can apply skin grafts at the site of his wound.

Tony said that his son is a member of the Groton Fire Department, and also works at the fire department in Harvard, where Walter grew up.

"He has been a firefighter for a very long time, 15 years," Tony said.

Walter has also been a fully licensed master pyrotechnician for "at least 10 years," and has worked at "a lot of big shows from Somerville down to Boston Harbor," his father said.

"This was just a freak accident, from what I can tell," Tony said. "The fire marshal said everything was set up perfectly, and he had followed safety precautions. It was static electricity or some kind of freak thing that fired it off."

Walter was wearing safety glasses at the time, and was wearing a shirt with no synthetic materials, "so it burned, but didn't melt," his father said.

"He was able to stop, drop and roll and put himself out," Tony said. "When they showed me a picture of his shirt, it was a bunch of charred cloth."

Jeffrey Coco, who has been on North Andover's Festival Committee for 30 years and also directs its Emergency Management Committee, said he was told by people who were present that the incident took place while Walsh was placing a firework charge in a mortar tube.

"Investigators have come down," Coco said. "There's a lot yet to be determined, but something went awry. There are so many redundancies built into modern safety displays that it is extremely difficult to make what happened happen."

Those precautions include LED lights that go on when an electric charge is present in the tubes, indicating that they are ready to fire, Coco said. These weren't illuminated when Walter was working, signifying that the tubes were safe, he said.

"They hadn't even got to that point yet," Coco said. "Over and above that, when it comes time to do the actual firing sequence, two keys have to be turned simultaneously, then they activate the computer, and the computer takes over and does the timing."

The fire marshal had signed off on all safety protocols for the event, and these exceeded requirements, Coco said. Those protocols include setting up fireworks outside of an exclusion zone that guarantees crowd safety.

In addition, vehicles transporting fireworks must be accompanied to their destination by the Fire Department, which then guards them through the duration of the event. More firefighters and emergency vehicles arrive before the event begins.

Following the incident, as stated in a press release that the North Andover Fire Department put out on Sunday, "an inspection of the rest of the display by the North Andover Fire Department and the Massachusetts Department of Fire Services confirmed the safety of the display and compliance with all fire protection regulations."

The show therefore went on as scheduled, at 9:15 p.m., which Coco said was the safest thing to do.

"They do not like to unload the fireworks from the mortar tubes," he said. "It's easier, safer and prudent to launch the fireworks and get them over with. They do not want to transport or unload ordinance from tubes."

Coco said that the only other incident in North Andover involving fireworks that he could remember was about 25 years ago, during a winter carnival, when one firework went off at an odd angle and singed members of the crowd.

Otherwise the town has been fortunate, he said, and Walter was lucky that his injuries on Sunday were not worse.

"He could have easily been killed," Coco said.

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(c)2022 The Eagle-Tribune

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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