Public Safety

Eastern Iowa father dies in fireworks mishap

It's the second fireworks death in 2 summers in Iowa

James Don McMichael
James Don McMichael

Consumer fireworks rarely lead to death in the United States, but they have twice in Iowa over the last two Independence Day celebrations — including the July 3 death of an Eastern Iowa father who was struck in the head by one, authorities said.

That afternoon, James Don McMichael, 53, of Atalissa, was declared dead after the Cedar County Sheriff’s Office, the Atalissa Fire Department and West Liberty Ambulance responded to a call at his home.

“The probable cause of death being firework striking him in the head,” a news release from the Cedar County Sheriff’s Office reported. “The incident is being ruled an accident.”

2018 Fireworks Death

An Eastern Iowa teenager gravely wounded over the weekend while shooting off fireworks with friends has become what authorities believe is the first person killed by the consumer explosives in the state since the Iowa Legislature legalized them last year.

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Authorities did not release more details of how the accident happened.

McMichael was a 1984 graduate of West Liberty High School and farmed all his life, according to his obituary. He leaves a wife, Joan; two sons; two brothers; and his parents. The Henderson-Barker Funeral Home in West Liberty is handling the arrangements.

His death marks the second time in the last two seasons that consumer fireworks have led to the death of an Eastern Iowan.

Bremer County sheriff’s deputies said Coltin Carolus, 18, was injured July 7, 2018, while discharging fireworks in Waverly. Medics with Waverly Ambulance Service transported him to Waverly Hospital, but he then was transferred to Covenant Medical Center in Waterloo, where he was put on life support but died the next day.

At the time, Iowa Fire Marshal Dan Wood said it was the first death in the state he knew of since the Iowa Legislature legalized consumer fireworks in 2017.

At the time, authorities did not release details of how fireworks had led to his death.

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Many communities, including Iowa City and Cedar Rapids, ban the use of consumer fireworks and impose hefty fines for violators.

According to the 2018 Annual Fireworks Report issued in June by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, deaths across the country from fireworks are very unusual — although injuries are common.

Researchers said they found only five fireworks deaths in the United States that year, although they cautioned there could be more that were not reported.

The researchers noted they have found reports of 121 fireworks-related deaths between 2003 and 2018, or an average of 7.56 deaths annually.

Although the report does not specifically name Carolus — the Iowa teen who died last summer of fireworks injuries — it contains an entry that matches the incident and provides more details of the circumstances leading to his death. According to the report, the teen was wearing a helmet rigged to fire explosives from his head when he died.

“On July 7, an 18-year-old male from Iowa was setting off fireworks with his friends at his residence,” the government report said. “According to the sheriff’s report, an adult friend decided to tape a tube to a football helmet using duct tape. This friend then placed the helmet on his head and launched several fireworks from the helmet. This friend did not experience any incidents while doing so.”

The report continued, “The victim stated he also wanted to launch fireworks from his head and taped a tube to a second helmet. The victim placed the helmet on his head, loaded the tube, and launched one mortar shell from the tube while it was atop of his head. The victim loaded the second mortar in the tube and ignited it, but the shell became stuck in the tube and didn’t launch. The mortar exploded in the tube atop of the victim’s head a few seconds later and caused the victim to fall to the ground.”

The report said there were 9,100 fireworks-related injuries in 2018 in the United States — the least since 8,700 in 2012.

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