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4 dead, 2 hurt in explosion at Waikele fireworks storage unit

By Gordon Y.K. Pang

LAST UPDATED: 11:04 p.m. HST, Apr 8, 2011

Four people were killed and two were injured after an explosive fire this morning in an underground former military bunker in Waikele where confiscated fireworks are stored.

Honolulu police late this afternoon said three males in their 20s and one male in his 50s suffered fatal injuries. A fifth male in his 20s was transported to a hospital in critical condition. A sixth male, also in his 20s, suffered minor injuries and refused treatment at the scene, police said.  

Honolulu Fire Dept. spokesman Capt. Terry Seelig said firefighters removed two bodies from the entrance of the storage facility at the Waikele Business Center on Pakela Street. However, the fire was still burning late this afternoon so the two other bodies could not be retrieved, police said.

The two injured people were found outside the cave, Seelig said.

All of the six men are believed to be employees of Donaldson Enterprises, the company that is using the cave, officials said.

One of the men said to be inside was identified by a relative as Justin Kelii, 29, of Kaneohe. His grandfather, George Kelii, said firefighters told them Justin Kelii was last seen inside the cave when the explosions began.

Robert Leahey, 50, was 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.

"This is a very tragic situation," Seelig said. "It's a very, very dangerous fire because there are still explosives involved." 

"What appears to have happened was there's been a fire in a storage bunker. Inside of the bunker are explosives. These are aerial fireworks that are stored in the bunkers," he said. "These are old bunkers that are one-time military bunkers used for munition storage so they're designed to hold materials like this."

Early this afternoon, Seelig said that the situation inside the bunker was too unstable for firefighters to go inside to battle the fire. He said the heat scorched koa haole trees up to 40 feet from the entrance of the bunker.

No one has been able to make contact with the two people deemed missing but who are believed to be inside the tunnel. "That's why we're calling them unaccounted for. It's unfortunate but the risk is too great to the rescuers and the degree of explosions and fire previously in the bunker indicate it's not safe for us," Seelig said.

Firefighters were shooting water into the entrance of the underground facility, but have not been able to enter it because of the danger from more explosions. Explosions were still occurring at the scene late this morning, officials said.

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

"We're working on a plan with HPD and ATF (the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) here on scene on how we're going to manage this scene. It's in a bunker that can contain these kinds of explosions. At this time, our priority is no further injury or loss of life and to control the scene.

"This may take a while and it's an extremely dangerous situation for our firefighters and other responders."

Realtor Peter Savio, who handles the leases for the storage facility, said the dead men are employees of Donaldson Enterprises, a company that stores confiscated fireworks.

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 company. 

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 has no comment at this time.

The company 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 today that an investigator has been dispatched to the scene.

HFD Battalion Chief Socrates Bratakos said this afternoon that 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.

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

"We're actually, probably, although it sounds horrible, lucky that it happened here in the cave rather than in a warehouse or a building because the explosion could have done considerably more damage and caused a lot of fire and things," Savio said.

"Here, it's contained in a cave," he said. 

Seelig estimated that each of the bunkers are about 250 feet long, 12 to 20 feet in width, 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 8:53 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.

"Two people were out(side) at the time. One was badly injured. He was transported to a hospital in critical condition. The other one had minor injuries and declined medical treatment.

"There are two others that are not accounted for, but they're in the bunker. There are still explosions happening in the bunker of aerials and smoke, so there's obviously a fire still happening to some degree, not as large as it was."

Seelig said the danger was only to an area immediately surrounding the bunker. While media was being kept out of the area, others doing business at Waikele Self Storage were being allowed in and out. 

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