10 Years Later: Scottown fire still burns in memories

Published 12:00 am Monday, July 3, 2006

SCOTTOWN — Weathered from nearly a decade of wind and rain, the stone memorial sits basked in sunlight atop a green-grassed hill along State Routes 775 and 217 in Scottown.

Ryan Aldridge, 24. Misti Cron, 21. Shelbi Cron, 3. Candy Lee, 31. Matt Sansom, 14. Floyd Tolliver, 34. Ona Tolliver, 8. Jason Wallace, 9. Kathlene Wilks, 71.

The nine names are carved in the tan slab, as equally permanent as the way those names are inscribed into the memories of friends and families who still mourn those killed in the July 3, 1996, fire at Ohio River Fireworks. The inscription says it all.

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“Taken From Our Lives … Not From Our Hearts.”

A single cigarette casually tossed aside 10 years go by then 24-year-old Todd Hall shook Lawrence County to its core with ramifications that changed the way fireworks are sold and perceived here and across the United States.

Ten years later …

The old clich/ says that, “Time heals all wounds.” Try telling that to those who were affected by the Scottown that changed the lives of countless people across the Tri-State.

“The tragedy of the whole thing, which ultimately killed nine people, still brings lots of emotions,” said Mike Boster, a firefighter at the time who now serves as chief of the Rome Volunteer Fire Department. “I think it still does for many firefighters in the county. I am not a big fan of fireworks anymore. It was a sad day for the county.”

Frank Carmon was one of many who lost loved ones in the fire. Though Carmon declined to be interviewed, he did convey a clear message through a family member.

“I hope Todd Hall is never able to hurt anyone again.”

Hall was found incompetent to stand trial on arson and involuntary manslaughter charges and is still serving a court-ordered commitment in a state mental health facility.

Other family members of the victims either declined or were unable to be reached for comment.

Painful memories

Though he was not at the scene initially, Boster arrived later as nearly all the counties’ departments came to lend a hand. Boster was still deeply affected by what he saw and what it all meant.

“It was just very surreal,” Boster said. “It is one of those images you have in your mind and you feel like you are watching someone doing things on TV.”

For Don Christian, chief of the Windsor Township Volunteer Fire Department, the fire is something that is never completely gone from your memory, especially this time of year.

“All the training in the world couldn’t prepare us for what we were going to see,” he said. “It was pretty rough.”

Riding on the first-arriving engine, Christian said bottle rockets were still whizzing around and fireworks were popping away, even though the store had only taken minutes to become fully engulfed.

“Those sights and sounds, you don’t forget about,” he said of the fire that also injured 11 people. “… I have done this every year since 1996. Each year at 13:59 hours, that was when the call first came in, I think back to what those families went through.

“To visit a fireworks store and see your family trapped inside, the families of the victims must be going through something we couldn’t even imagine.”

Making a change

The Scottown tragedy grabbed national attention as the media and others shined a spotlight on weak laws that did little to prevent this from occurring again.

“This was something I hoped to never, ever see happen again,” Boster said. “I worked hard with other people to make certain it never happened again.”

Boster and others made the journey to Columbus to testify in front of a Congressional committee. Ultimately, the hard work paid off.

One year later, the Ohio Legislature passed a law that strengthened security and safety procedures for fireworks displays. Other regulation groups followed in subsequent years.

“The legislation really affected the way fireworks vendors do business across the United States,” Boster said. “The National Fire Protection Agency also adopted the same standards because of Scottown.”

Christian would like to see more changes made without something like the Scottown fire to drive the need home.

“It could still happen. I don’t go to fireworks stores but I understand they do things differently now,” he said. “I still think some of the laws need to be reformed. It is still not real clear what you are allowed to do.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.