Commentary: Inaction on fireworks prompts many questions

The July 4 illegal fireworks fizzled out at about 4 a.m. on July 5. Prior to that, residents in Dorchester, especially those, like many veterans, who are sensitive to loud noises that sound like bombs, continued to deal with a two-month trauma that kept babies awake; pets constantly alarmed; and many, like me, up until the wee hours to make sure that their houses wouldn’t catch on fire.

It was like listening to the soundtrack of a war movie.

Although I agree that dealing with fireworks displays could be addressed under the purview of another city department, the police are currently all we have to confront the fireworks, which outside of events like the Esplanade concert and fireworks, are illegal in Massachusetts. But, almost to prove the point that fireworks should be the responsibility of another department, the police were unable to control the uncountable explosions on the holiday.

The only sighting of police in my area of Savin Hill, a hotbed of fireworks, was a police car that drove to the end of Caspian Way at about 8:30 p.m., as fireworks were being set off in the park, and flashed its blue lights while slowly backing down the street. It didn’t seem to work, as the fireworks in the park continued to midnight.

What makes me the angriest, though, is that this wasn’t a surprise. For two months, fireworks have plagued the Boston neighborhoods and many other parts of the country. Boston 911 calls on fireworks were up by 5,543 percent in June. Social media had hundreds of exasperated comments, mostly sounding like, “Why isn’t anybody doing anything about the fireworks!”

It gets worse. The New Hampshire fireworks industry had oversize billboards in Massachusetts advertising the purchasing of illegal-in-Massachusetts fireworks, and in some parts of Boston, Phantom Fireworks went door to door, leaving brochures advertising how to obtain illegal fireworks. The young people we asked about the source of their fireworks as they walked into Savin Hill Park to set them off, told us they had just driven down from New Hampshire with them.

At 2 a.m., I wondered, where are the fireworks coming from? I learned that nearly all fireworks come from China, but the main supplier in this part of the country is Phantom Fireworks, a $100 million company headquartered in Youngstown, Ohio, and owned by Bruce Zoldan. The company has a connection to the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and an attempted bombing in Times Square. Tamerlan Tsarnaev, one of the Boston bombers, purchased “Lock and Load” mortar kits from the Phantom Fireworks facility in Seabrook NH, the explosives of which were likely used in creating bombs for the Marathon. Failed Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad purchased his fireworks from a Phantom Fireworks store in Pennsylvania.

On May 22, 2019, Zoldan met with President Trump to discuss his proposed $300 billion in tariffs on Chinese goods, which included fireworks that are overwhelmingly imported from China. On June 25, it was announced that Phantom had agreed to donate $750,000 worth of fireworks to Trump’s 2019 Fourth of July celebration, which was followed by Trump's decision to hold off his threatened tariffs. Jordan Libowitz from Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics commented: “This is another example of how private companies attempt use their money to influence the government by stroking the president’s ego.” Zoldan’s political contributions are on both sides of the aisle.

The Saturday night of the 4th, dialing 911 for hours was an exercise in frustration. After being put on hold in a couple of languages, the next thing I heard was loud computer noises, followed by a request to stay on the line. At 10 p.m, I finally got an operator, who told me that there were 1,500 calls pending. At midnight, as all hell was breaking loose, the 911 system seemed to fail. It didn’t shut down, but you couldn’t get anyone; you just got the same loop asking that I stay on the line, and ultimately cutting me off. Imagine if someone were having a heart attack.

Maybe we can excuse the lack of action in May, but after several houses burned down, and a chunk of Savin Hill Park burned after being hit by fireworks, I thought that leaders at the state and city would take action quickly.

But it was too little, too late. Considering that May saw historic numbers of complaints about fireworks in Boston, a 2,300 percent increase over the previous year, (as noted, June’s calls were up almost twice that number) why did Attorney General Maura Healey wait until July 1 to issue a cease and desist order to Phantom Fireworks to stop advertising in Massachusetts?

Why were Massachusetts state troopers not deployed at the border to seize illegal fireworks flooding into the state? Did Gov. Baker contact New Hampshire’s elected officials to ask for help in curtailing sales to Massachusetts residents? Anyone could have predicted that July 4 would have a historic level of fireworks, yet the Boston Police did not have adequate staffing to deal with skyrocketing levels of 911 calls. And why did Mayor Walsh wait until June 26 to create a task force to address illegal fireworks?

Neighborhood folks are disgusted and should be demanding answers. And brace yourselves – those New Hampshire fireworks typically sell at deep discounts after July 4.

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