Someone accountable for Scottown deaths needs

Published 12:00 am Thursday, October 14, 2004

Tribune editorial board

It was eight years ago when it happened. As is often the case when tragedy strikes, it took many by complete surprise. In a flash, a cigarette tossed by a mentally challenged man set the fireworks store ablaze.

When the flames were eventually extinguished, the tiny community of Scottown would never be the same again. Nine people were killed in the 1996 fire at Ohio River Fireworks.

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And for years since, the family members of the victims have been fighting in court for some bit of justice in the case.

The man who tossed the cigarette was ruled mentally incompetent to stand trial. But the sad twist in the story is that the state fire marshal in an undercover operation discovered the factory's sprinkler system had been disabled. The office made the discovery just days prior to the tragic fire.

The issue has been batted around the court system for some time. In 2002, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that the state fire marshal's office was not immune to prosecution for negligence in carrying out public duty. The high court sent the case back to an appeals court to see if the decision applied in the case of the fireworks store fire.

The appeals court ruled that the state fire marshal did, in fact, have immunity. Family members appealed the case to the Supreme Court.

On Tuesday, the high court refused to hear the appeal.

Not ruling on the matter is tantamount to saying the state fire marshal's office did nothing wrong. If in fact, as the victims' families allege, the state fire marshal's office found glaring safety violations, the state should have had the responsibility to immediately shut the facility down - especially given the store's highly flammable contents.

Hiding behind legal protections and the excuses is unacceptable.

Nothing will bring back the lives lost in the fire, but allowing no one to be accountable for the fire will do nothing to prevent another such tragedy.