Deadly Hawaii Fireworks Blast Tied to Contractors by U.S.

Two federal contractors share the blame for a 2011 fireworks explosion in Hawaii that killed five workers, according to a draft report by a U.S. safety agency.

VSE Corp., hired by the Treasury Department to store seized property, awarded a subcontract to Donaldson Enterprises Inc. to handle the confiscated fireworks, according to the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board.

Donaldson had no experience disposing of fireworks, and it was hired partly because it submitted the lowest bid, according to the report obtained in advance of its release today. The independent agency recommended that the government close a regulatory gap and demand that contractors have strong safety records and the necessary experience.

“We’d like to see this sort of scrutiny applied to all contracts, because there are a lot of different hazardous activities that occur, not just fireworks disposal,” Daniel Horowitz, managing director of the safety board, said in a phone interview. “These safeguards are necessary.”

VSE’s “insufficient” contractor selection and the lack of oversight allowed Donaldson “to introduce significant hazards to its fireworks disposal process without those hazards being adequately identified or effectively controlled,” the report said.

VSE and Donaldson officials didn’t immediately respond to phone calls or e-mails seeking comment on the board’s findings.

Bunker Explosion

Federal law enforcement agents from 2007 to 2010 seized the Chinese fireworks in Honolulu. While they were labeled as consumer fireworks, they had the physical characteristics of more dangerous commercial-grade pyrotechnics.

Donaldson, which specializes in handling unexploded weapons such as grenades or land mines, had leased the bunker-like structure where the fireworks were stored, according to the report.

The five victims of the April 8, 2011, explosion were employees of Waipahu, Hawaii-based Donaldson. They were taking apart fireworks tubes on a loading dock near the structure on the island of Oahu, the board said.

Donaldson had developed a disposal method that involved disassembling the fireworks and gathering their explosive components, including black powder and aerial shells, in cardboard boxes, according to the report.

Its process created a larger explosive hazard than the original fireworks represented, the board said.

When it began to rain, the workers moved all the materials inside the facility, the agency said.

One Exit

The board didn’t say what caused the blast. It said it might have been due to a spark from a metal cart, friction from a rolling office chair or static electricity from plastic garbage bags. Any of them might have ignited loose black powder.

The fire developed near the only exit, preventing the workers inside the structure from escaping. Another employee was injured.

VSE, based in Alexandria, Virginia, was in charge of the work under a Treasury contract. The company won $369 million in federal awards in fiscal 2011.

The board suggested that the government strengthen federal acquisition regulations to mandate a review of a prospective contractor’s safety record, employee training and experience.

It also made safety recommendations to the Treasury Department, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Justice Department.

The agency’s investigation found that the National Fire Protection Association, a trade group that works to prevent fire-related hazards and advocates for public safety, had no industry standards on the safe disposal of fireworks.

The board recommended that the group develop standards. A spokesman for the association didn’t immediately respond to an e-mail seeking comment.

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