Cal Expo fireworks mishap leaves thousands disappointed

People flocked to Paradise Beach in East Sacramento to view last year’s fireworks display at Cal Expo. The 2015 fireworks show was cut short when equipment launching one of the colorful missiles malfunctioned.
People flocked to Paradise Beach in East Sacramento to view last year’s fireworks display at Cal Expo. The 2015 fireworks show was cut short when equipment launching one of the colorful missiles malfunctioned. Sacramento Bee file

More than 25,000 people walked away disappointed Saturday from Cal Expo, when the Sacramento region’s largest Fourth of July fireworks display ended abruptly after a mortar failed to launch and sent sparks flying.

A 6-inch mortar misfired about 10 minutes into the 23-minute display, according to the Office of the State Fire Marshal, part of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. The detonation destroyed a rack of mortars, sending fragments and sparks flying and igniting two small fires within view of thousands.

“For some reason, the shell didn’t go up in the air. It detonated within the mortar,” said Steve Guarino, chief of Cal Fire’s Fire and Life Safety Division. “Instead of up, it went sideways.”

Despite the flying sparks, the accident didn’t threaten the thousands gathered across a lake and raceway from the mortars. Firefighters extinguished one blaze on the Cal Expo track infield, while the show’s operator, J&M Displays, put out a second fire near the fairground’s horse barn. No injuries were reported.

The misfire came a year after a large grass fire on Cal Expo property and the adjoining American River Parkway threatened to cancel Fourth of July fireworks. After several hours and with the flames under control last year, Cal Expo officials proceeded with the show.

David Fennell, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist who ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor in 2014, was at Saturday’s show and said no one appeared worried by the unexpected explosion. He said many rushed to the front of the grandstands with selfie sticks to snap pictures of the grass fire.

“It almost looked like people were roasting marshmallows over the fire,” he said.

Sacramento resident Jeffrey Stephen complained about the lack of organization after the interruption, which left many wondering how to exit the fairgrounds or receive a refund.

“I paid good money and was expecting a show,” he said.

Lara Popyack, a Cal Expo spokeswoman, said management will discuss on Monday whether to issue refunds to people who paid for tickets or parking, which cost $10 per vehicle. General admission to the show was free, while some paid $10 for reserved seating in a sold-out VIP section.

Putting on the show cost Cal Expo $80,000, including for fireworks and staffing. Popyack said she didn’t know whether Cal Expo could seek reimbursement from the Iowa-based operator.

Guarino said the company was well-respected in the pyrotechnic industry. It has operated Cal Expo’s Fourth of July events for several years, Popyack said.

About two-thirds of the mortars didn’t go off Saturday because of the mishap. With the incident still under investigation, it was unclear whether the mortar misfired because of a manufacturer defect or human error.

Officials with J&M Displays were not available for comment Sunday.

Fennell said people calmly filed out of the grandstands to the parking lot, but revelers didn’t let the cancellation put a damper on their celebration. Several even shot off their own fireworks in the parking lot.

On Sunday, just after 1:30 p.m., officials set off two fireworks that could not be safely disarmed. The other mortars were loaded for transport back to the manufacturer.

Guarino said the misfire, which he called a “catastrophic failure,” could have resulted in more fires and injuries. He noted that the projectiles could have struck other fireworks, possibly setting off a chain reaction.

“We count our blessings,” Guarino said. “It could have been much worse than it was.”

Guarino, who has supervised fire safety at Cal Expo for 15 years, couldn’t recall a similar pyrotechnics failure at the state fairgrounds.

The Cal Expo racetrack area, he said, is the perfect environment for fireworks, with a nearby lake and lack of vegetation preventing fires from spreading.

“Accidents happen, but this is very uncommon,” he said. “We are truly dealing with explosives.”