Fireworks: How my dad nearly killed our friend

MY FAMILY loved fireworks, and setting them off at home was a beloved annual ritual.

The whole north London suburb where I grew up would do the same, with neighbours competing to set off the biggest and loudest from their tiny back gardens.

After years of envying the rockets whistling high overhead and the ever-louder booms from the houses next door, we decided to up our game. My dad went online and found a serious-sounding shell sold by a display fireworks website, but apparently OK for use at home (if your garden was double the length of ours.)

It arrived, looking just like a bomb wrapped in brown paper, and we waited excitedly for Bonfire Night on November 5.

My 10-year-old brother invited round his best friend Patrick, and we all lined up just outside the garden doors for the big bang, while my apprehensive mother stayed inside with my little sister. Dad placed the scary looking firework into a wooden crate filled with earth, a practised technique to avoid leaving a black hole in the lawn.

He lit the fuse. It sizzled. He ran back to us. Then, an almighty explosion. Pieces of wood rained down on us as we cowered in fear. The firework hadn't taken off, and had exploded in the crate.

Then we saw Patrick was on the ground. A chunk of wood had hit him hard in the stomach, and he was left with a serious bruise. We were only lucky it wasn't worse.

Not surprisingly, his mother wasn't very keen to send him over again. My father quit his quest for sound and fury. But I hadn't completely learnt my lesson.

Barry Walsh, 52, was killed when he was struck in the head by a firework on New Year’s Eve.
Barry Walsh, 52, was killed when he was struck in the head by a firework on New Year’s Eve. Supplied

About a decade later, aged 18 and at university, my drunk housemates and I set off a rocket someone had bought in a field behind our house. We went running as soon as it was lit, but didn't realise there was a wire fence in the way, almost invisible in the dark.

Our group simultaneously flung ourselves to the ground in front of the fence, in a moment that seemed straight out of a movie. We were shaken up, but unharmed, even a little giddy from our exploits.

These days, reading about the tragic deaths on New Year's Eve, when two men were killed by fireworks, I feel sick at the thought of what could have happened on that night of drinking and wobbly firework-lighting.

While it is still legal to buy fireworks in the UK, it is illegal to possess or use fireworks without a licence in most Australian states.

In the Northern Territory, it is only legal to possess fireworks on Territory Day, when locals stock on up trolley-loads of rockets and Roman candles to set off between 6pm and 11pm. It was one bright spark lighting a firework stuck up his bottom that produced the legendary NT News headline: "Why I stuck a cracker up my clacker."

The fireworks ban may trigger our "nanny state" radar, and sound like a killjoy effort to stamp out the excitement of a homemade explosion, but I'd rather be a damp squib than mourning the death of a loved-one as the New Year begins.

Barry John Walsh, 52, was killed when trying to light a firework at 3am on Budgewoi Beach, on the NSW Central Coast. The large, 10-year-old firework struck him in the head and he suffered a serious head injury. He could not be revived.

Mr Walsh's wife Jo was so distraught she had to be taken to Wyong Hospital and sedated. His father Barry Walsh Sr said his son was "a special person" who lived life to the fullest.

A 46-year-old man died while apparently trying to light a firework at Hollands Landing in Gippsland, east of Melbourne, about 9.35pm. Paramedics began treating the man from Springhurst in northeastern Victoria for upper body injuries, but he died at the scene.

Friends left tributes to Mr Walsh at Budgewoi Beach, a popular spot for setting off fireworks.
Friends left tributes to Mr Walsh at Budgewoi Beach, a popular spot for setting off fireworks. Sue Graham

Three people were also treated for injuries caused by illegal fireworks this NYE.

In Victoria, a man in his 20s suffered facial burns when he was hit with a firecracker in Drouin, east of Melbourne, and a teenager was hit in the face with fireworks in South Morang in Melbourne.

A 19-year-old suffered serious eye injuries and burns to his face after a firework he was trying to light exploded about 12.20am at a property in Blue Haven on the NSW Central Coast. He is due to undergo vision tests.

Three-year-old Evan Maunder was injured during a New Year's Eve fireworks display in Toowoomba, Queensland, when a shell flew off and hit his arm, the Toowoomba Chronicle reported.

Each year, people are injured or killed attempting to welcome in the New Year by setting off fireworks. Police in NSW and Victoria have now issued urgent warnings about illegal fireworks as Australia Day approaches.

"We're into summer now, we know there will be more people with illegal fireworks in the lead-up to Australia Day," Victoria Police deputy commissioner Andrew Crisp told reporters on Sunday.

He reminded the public fireworks are dangerous explosives and can kill and said police were running operations in Footscray and Springvale to try to cut off the trade at the source.

"If you have illegal fireworks hand them in," he said. "How would you feel if you knew someone was about to let off illegal fireworks and it resulted in serious injury or death? So report it. Let's take something out of this tragic death from last night."

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