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Cause of fatal fireworks blast is ‘undetermined,’ HFD says

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Investigators are not able to determine what caused the April 8 blast in a Waikele storage tunnel that had been storing illegal aerial fireworks, a Honolulu Fire Department spokesman said. The blast killed five men and injured a sixth.

The department concluded its two-month long investigation, said Honolulu fire Capt. Terry Seelig. Investigations by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and other agencies are ongoing.

“The event appears to have originated inside the front area of the bunker; however, a specific point of origin could not be identified from the fire and blast patterns,” Seelig said.

The five men killed were employees of Donaldson Enterprises Inc., which was contracted to dispose of aerial fireworks that had been confiscated in December 2009. A federal investigator said the men were in the tunnel preparing the fireworks for demolition at another site when the explosion occurred.

Investigators examined fire and explosion patterns, inspected debris and materials, interviewed witnesses and conducted research related to the incident.

Several possible causes were evaluated including weather-related activity, electro-static buildup, sparking, cell phone use, smoking, improper fireworks handling and other operational or accidental actions of the workers in the bunker, Seelig said. Also looked at was an incendiary event although investigators “feel that the explosion was unlikely malicious in nature.”

Killed in the blast were Bryan “Keola” Cabalce, 25, of Wahiawa; Robert “Kevin” Freeman, 24, of Aiea; Justin Kelii, 29, of Kaneohe; Robert Leahey, 50, of Waianae; and Neil Sprankle, 24, of Aiea.

The aerial fireworks had been confiscated by federal agents from a shipping container that arrived from Shanghai on Dec. 6, 2009, and were being held as evidence. Gifford Chang, president of Tiger Corp., has been charged in federal court of smuggling the commercial grade aerial fireworks because he did not have the proper permits to import them. Chang is free on $100,000 bail pending trial.

The undetermined classification means that although investigators analyzed all possible fire causes, there was insufficient information to identify a specific cause or substantially eliminate possible causes.  It also means that the investigation is closed but can be reopened if new information about the fire is introduced or discovered. 

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