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Trial begins for company tied to deadly Waikele bunker blast

  • COURTESY OF THE HONOLULU POLICE DEPT.

    The aftermath of the fireworks disposal accident of April 8, 2011 at a Waikele storage bunker.

The criminal trial against a company accused of mishandling fireworks involved in a deadly 2011 Hawaii explosion is about reckless disregard for the law and safety, a federal prosecutor told jurors today.

Donaldson Enterprises and its head Charles Donaldson are charged with conspiracy, storing and treating hazardous wastes without a permit and making a false statement. They aren’t charged with the explosion or the deaths of the five Donaldson employees. The blast was so ferocious it scorched trees 40 feet away.

“The explosion, however, is evidence in this case,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Marc Wallenstein said. “It’s evidence of how hazardous the fireworks were”

The company had a contract to dispose of fireworks seized by the federal government. In order to finish the job faster and get paid faster, Donaldson directed employees to break apart the fireworks using metal tools, remove the powder inside and store the powder in cardboard boxes, Wallenstein said.

Black powder and flash power gain strength when accumulated in large quantities, Wallenstein said.

Donaldson continued directing employees to store and treat the fireworks in Waikele bunker in suburban Honolulu even after a temporary permit expired, Wallenstein said. Donaldson then lied about disposing all of the fireworks in one seizure, when six 35-gallon bins remained, Wallenstein said: “He lied in order to get paid.”

The five men who died were not just employees, but friends who were like brothers to Donaldson, defense attorney Thomas Otake told jurors. Donaldson wasn’t trying to skirt permitting and various agencies knew what the company was doing, Otake said.

But after the explosion, “some time goes by, fingers get pointed, lawsuits get filed,” Otake said. “Then out of all of that … this indictment is brought.”

The explosion was ruled accidental. Investigators said the explosion was not likely malicious. Civil lawsuits by family members of the five men are pending.

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