Minister Calls Fatal Fireworks Blast ‘Not a Big Deal’

Defense Minister Tea Banh on Sunday said a fireworks explosion that killed one man and injured seven more in Phnom Penh last week was “not a big deal,” while international pyrotechnics experts said over the weekend that the incident could have easily been prevented with proper safety precautions.

During a fireworks display to mark the 10-year anniversary of King Norodom Sihamoni’s coronation on Wednesday night, a firework exploded inside a metal launch tube, sending shrapnel into a nearby group of revelers. Nakry Darou, 23, from Kandal province’s Koh Thom district, was killed instantly when a piece of metal tore open his torso. Seven others were injured, two of them seriously.

“The incident was not a big deal,” General Banh said Sunday. “It was an unexpected incident.”

Gen. Banh added that his ministry, which handles official fireworks shows, would improve the safety of future displays.

“We don’t want it to happen again, so we will be cautious,” he said, adding that fireworks would be launched from boats moored in the river, considered a safer method, during this week’s Water Festival.

On Thursday, Lieutenant General Ith Sarath, director of training at the Ministry of Defense, whose department handled Wednesday night’s show—during which the fireworks were launched from clusters of metal and PVC tubes— blamed a faulty explosive for the accident.

“Now we are investigating to see how [the victims] were hit, whether by the [cardboard] shell or something else,” Lt. Gen. Sarath said Sunday, explaining that he chose to launch the fireworks from tubes in the ground rather than boats because of his ministry’s previously untainted 40-year safety record.

International pyrotechnics experts said over the weekend that the accident was consistent with those caused by damp or faulty fireworks, but that proper precautions would have prevented death and injury.

Warren Ritchie, the managing director of Queensland, Australia-based Fireworks Down Under, said in an email Saturday that much of the world has abandoned the use of metal or PVC pipes as mortars, precisely because of the potential for accidents such as the one that occurred in Phnom Penh last week.

“[W]e had a similar thing happen here and a small child was killed, so we banned the use of steel in all displays,” Mr. Ritchie said.

He added that if steel mortars are used, they should have sandbags placed around them or be buried deep enough so that potential shrapnel would be sent into the ground.

But Jon Culverhouse, the managing director of Fantastic Fireworks in London, said in an email Sunday that a barrier of sandbags would still not be enough to stop the force of an exploding metal tube. “Unless you were using dozens of sandbags around each launch tube, the force of the explosion would always be overwhelming,” he said.

Mr. Culverhouse said launching from boats is much safer, but if metal tubes are used, there is still a real danger to bystanders and operators.

“[A]s barges are usually at least 100 meters offshore…I wouldn’t want to be any closer than that,” he said, adding that material such as fiberglass or cardboard should be used instead, because they are strong enough to absorb pressure from an explosion but flexible and therefore unlikely to break into sharp pieces.

While Lt. Gen. Sarath of the Defense Ministry on Sunday said he is aware that launch tubes should be buried, photos widely circulated on Facebook show the tubes used in last week’s show to be almost entirely exposed, with just a few centimeters of sand piled around their base.,

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