It was supposed to be the usual Fourth, with family fun and fireworks, for Brian Bean of Goddard.
Bean, 40, was celebrating Independence Day at home with his wife, two boys and other family members and friends. He was in charge of fireworks – as always. Around 9 p.m., he set up a few mortar tubes. He lit the first one and was reaching for the second one’s fuse.
Then it happened.
The first mortar tube exploded almost instantaneously after Bean lit its fuse, without the usual few-seconds delay. The force blew Bean’s hat off, separating it from its bill. The blast shot pieces of shrapnel deep into his skin and particles of gunpowder into his eyes. It burned his cheeks, eyes and forehead. It deafened him. And it blinded him.
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“As soon as the thing exploded, I couldn’t see,” Bean said. “My eyes were so swollen. You physically had to pry them open.”
His family took him to the Wesley West clinic, at the corner of 13th and Tyler. From there, he went to Wichita Vision Institute, where he was seen by physician Reena Patel. She and physician Kumar Dalla ultimately treated Bean.
It was a busy night for the doctors.
“Between 6 p.m. and midnight I got called by 25 patients,” Dalla said. “(They were injured by) every type of firework that you can imagine. Everything from regular sparklers to Roman candle, to mortar, to rocket.”
Most of the patients were young men, but there also were a few children: a 3-year-old, a 4-year-old and a 5-year-old. The doctors spent the night doing eye surgeries.
Bean’s eyes were still swollen shut when he reached the Vision Institute. He said his ears were ringing and everything hurt. On a scale of 1 to 10, he rated his pain a 10. Over the next two weeks, he would have three eye surgeries and plastic surgery. The pain would remain a 10.
Bean was always careful with fireworks. He stored them properly, inspected them, checked the fuse, and even added fuse if he thought it wasn’t long enough. He kept a bucket of water at hand every time he shot, and he taught his boys — an 8-year-old and a 5-year-old — to make sure the fireworks were out before throwing them in the trash.
This year, when his older son was allowed for the first time to shoot his own small, nonexplosive fireworks, Bean assisted him and explained every step.
Fireworks were Bean’s thing – an amusement in which he invested thousands of dollars every year.
“It’s my holiday. People know that, and they come to my house because they know,” he said. “I take it seriously. I’m not careless with the fireworks.”
There were about 70 calls on July 4 for injuries caused by fireworks, Wichita fire officials said. Physicians with the Via Christi emergency departments saw three cases of eye injuries caused by fireworks that day, according to spokeswoman Maria Loving. Wesley hospital saw six people with eye injuries, said spokeswoman Susan Burchill.
Of the people Dalla saw on the night of July 4, none was inebriated, he said. Most patients had experienced accidents. Some happened because people thought the fireworks malfunctioned, when they were just slow to react.
Two of the patients — men ages 16 and 24 — had permanent loss of eyesight.
“What I want to emphasize is that even when you think you are very safe, accidents and injuries happen,” Dalla said. “Even if you’re careful, you can still get injured. This is dangerous stuff.”
Some of the particles in Bean’s eyes had gone so deep that the doctors needed several surgeries to get them all out. They used needles to pick gunpowder out of the cornea. He then had cosmetic surgery to remove the shrapnel that had gone deep under his skin, around his eyes, on his cheeks and forehead.
It took more than a week for the swelling around Bean’s eyes to subdue so that he could open them. At first, he could see only large objects but couldn’t identify them. Everything was blurry. Now it’s gotten better, but he has to wait until Wednesday for a post-op visit to determine his vision loss.
So far, the medical treatments have cost Bean more than $10,000. He is not sure how much of that will be covered by his insurance. He learned he might have problems with getting the insurance to cover his plastic surgery, which could be considered an improvement operation, not a treatment. He also learned that his homeowners insurance, which could offset the costs caused by accidents that happened at home, only covers tenants and visitors – not the owner himself.
“It’s expensive and it’s not worth the thrill of a $5 mortar bomb that goes off in your face,” Bean said. “It certainly has long-lasting effects. I continue to have headaches; I don’t know if that will ever go away. Occasionally, my ears will ring; I don’t know if that’s ever going to go away.”
People should know that fireworks are unpredictable, Bean said. You never know exactly how they’re going to react once you light them up. Some of them are of bad quality – they won’t go off, or they’ll explode almost instantaneously after they are lit, like the mortar bomb that injured Bean.
He also thinks that sellers should be more responsible about who they sell the fireworks to and should give people more instructions on how to use them.
In other words, people might want to think about alternative ways to celebrate Independence Day, Bean said, “besides blowing ourselves up.”