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Deadly blast

Explosions kill workers at a Waikele bunker turned into a storage facility for fireworks

By Gordon Y.K. Pang

POSTED:
LAST UPDATED: 02:32 a.m. HST, Apr 09, 2011


Fiery explosions in an underground bunker used to store confiscated fireworks kept police and fire officials at bay all day and into last night after four men were killed and two others were injured in Waikele yesterday.

Emergency personnel and investigators were expected to return to HIDC Small Business Storage this morning, where two of the men were unaccounted for and presumed dead inside the underground storage facility once used by the military to store nuclear weapons.

All six men were believed to be employees of Donaldson Enterprises Inc., an ordnance disposal company that held a contract to store confiscated fireworks and that leased space in the bunkers.

The powerful initial explosion occurred just before 9 a.m. in one of 130 bunkers built into the side of the hill by the military and then leased in recent years to private interests as storage sites. It set off a series of other explosions in the cave, and fire officials deemed the situation too unstable to go inside yesterday.

The bodies of two of the dead were pulled from about 20 feet inside the entrance. The Honolulu Police Department's Special Services Division used motorized devices to try to locate the two remaining inside, who are believed to be at the far end.

"There are still explosions that are occurring," Hono­lulu fire Capt. Terry Seelig said late yesterday afternoon.

Two of the men killed were identified by family members.

One was Justin Kelii, 29, of Kaneohe. His grandfather, George Kelii, said a witness told him Justin was last seen inside the cave when the first explosion occurred.

Robert Leahey, 50, was also identified as one of the men who died, according to his brother, sports broadcaster Jim Leahey. He was one of the two men whose bodies were recovered.

The other men who died were not identified. Police said they were 24 years old.

Of those injured, a 25-year-old man was taken to the hospital in critical condition with severe burns throughout his body. The other, also in his 20s, had minor injuries and refused treatment at the scene, officials said.

"This is a very tragic situation," Seelig said.

Police and the man who owns the 130-unit storage center both said the bunker was being leased by a licensed explosives company contracted to stabilize and destroy fireworks seized as evidence.

Seelig estimated that each of the bunkers are about 250 feet long, 12 to 20 feet wide, and 18 feet high. He said there is only one entrance to the facility, which consists of caves formerly used by the military.

The Fire Department received the first call at 8:54 a.m. from the Waikele Business Center, according to Seelig. On the way to the scene, firefighters were told there was a car fire. When they arrived, there was a vehicle on fire outside the bunker entrance but also an explosive fire raging inside.

"There was a report that there were six people in the bunker at the time of the explosions. When we first got to scene, the first company observed fire and explosions happening at the front of the bunker. And there was a lot of debris on the ground from spent aerial casings," Seelig said. "They did a quick knockdown of flames from the side and then, because there was a report of four people right in front of the bunker, they did a quick assessment. They found two of them and brought them out. Unfortunately, there were no signs of life."

Firefighters were able to shoot water into the entrance of the underground facility but unable to enter because of the danger from more explosions.

It is clear there was "a fairly large amount of aerial fireworks … the larger-caliber aerials that are used for public display," Seelig said.

Part of the Waikele Business Center, an industrial park, can be accessed from Pakela Street near Waikele Elementary School. Neither the school nor homes at the nearby Tropics subdivision about two miles away were in danger from the explosives, officials said.

The danger was chiefly in the area immediately surrounding the bunker, which was cordoned by police.

While media were being kept out of the area, others doing business at HIDC Small Business Storage were being allowed in and out.

HIDC Small Business Storage consists of about 130 former underground military bunkers.

Realtor Peter Savio, who owns the facility, said 30 bunkers are subleased to Waikele Self Storage, which runs a series of TV advertisements about its private storage facilities. The explosion was on the opposite end of the Waikele Self Storage, he said.

Savio said that while the deaths are tragic, the situation could have been much worse. If it had happened in a warehouse or some other building, "the explosion could have done considerably more damage," he said.

"Here, it's contained in a cave, it's 20 feet wide and 200 feet deep," he said.

At one time, there were up to seven companies storing fireworks in the tunnels, he said. Now that most fireworks are banned on Oahu, only two other companies besides Donaldson stores fireworks there.

Donaldson Enterprises Inc., which registered as a Hawaii business in 1988, is an unexploded ordnance remediation company, started by the late Byron Donaldson, a retired Marine and former Honolulu Police Department employee, the company's website says. His widow, Ryoko Donaldson, runs the business.

The company did not return calls seeking comment. However, a woman who said she was not Ryoko Donaldson, but who answered the phone at Donaldson's house, said the company had no comment.

Donaldson has completed more than 500 explosives- and ordnance-related projects in Hawaii, Alaska, Japan, Guam, Palau and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, according to its website. Its services include detection of subsurface unexploded ordnance, utilities and underground storage tanks.

The website says every job was conducted "without a single accident or injury." A search through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's incident reports yielded no results in relation to the company.

Jennifer Shishido, administrator of the Hawaii Occupational Safety and Health Division, said yesterday an investigator was sent to the scene.

HFD Battalion Chief Socrates Bratakos said the company that leases the facility applied for and received a license to store fireworks after the department inspected the tunnel last year.

"Our records show they had 1.4g aerial rockets," he said. "That might include consumer fireworks as well."

Bratakos said he is not aware of any fireworks-related citations or violations for the company.

Star-Advertiser reporter Rob Shikina contributed to this report.






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