The great fireworks explosion of 1987

An accident leads to a spectacular explosion and a close call
At this point I’m running flat out with my camera held out at arms length shooting backwards. I didn’t know there was another guy crawling along the side of the truck until later.

In 1987 I was working the 4th of July shift for the Lewiston Morning Tribune in Lewiston, Idaho.

Most of the paper was already to bed and the platemakers were making color separations when I was dispatched to nearby Clarkston, Wash. to make a photo of the preparations for the evening’s fireworks show. The display would go off too late to make deadline, but the editors wanted to have something visual to acknowledge the event in the next day’s paper.

Well as you can see, nothing went as planned. One of the pyro technicians accidentally lit a fuse that quickly spread to the nearby boxes — all full of aerial fireworks. One minute I was gathering the names of the subjects for my photo captions and the next I was running for my life.

The entire calamity took maybe 30 to 40 seconds to unfold from initial spark to final climatic explosion. I burned through a 36 exposure roll in my Canon F1 with a motor drive in bursts as I hauled ass to safety. It was pure luck that I had color film in the camera that I chose to shoot with in the confusion. We mostly shot black and white during the week, but the front page was set for full color for the holiday so I had loaded one camera with Ektachrome 100 and the other with Tri-X.

It was pure luck that no one was injured. Debris from the shells flew 100s of feet and ground zero was scorched to mineral soil. One of the cars in the circle had a hole in the door panel from cardboard shrapnel, yes cardboard, and all of the vehicles that you see here were totaled for insurance purposes.

With my ears still ringing, I went back to the office and told the skeleton holiday crew that we might want to tear up the original front page layout. The images ran in the paper over the next few days as more details emerged and the community rallied to order replacement fireworks for a rescheduled show.

Life Magazine considered running some of the photos as an opening spread, but, frustratingly, that plan was scrubbed at the last minute to make room for pictures from the Ollie North Iran/Contra hearings going on in Washington D.C. at the time.

That was the closest I ever came to being published in Life Magazine before its demise.

Chris Pietsch is the director of photography for Gannett Newspapers in Oregon, The Register-Guard in Eugene and the Statesman Journal in Salem.

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