Mountain of safety measures missing before fireworks warehouse ignited, sources confirm
Basic safety protections expected in a warehouse storing large quantities of explosives were missing on the night a fire broke out in the Magic in the Sky (MITS) facility, multiple sources told WFTV.
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The sources said that failure to provide for worker safety extended to the transportation process that moved fireworks to customers.
WFTV is not identifying any of the sources in this story because they are not authorized to talk publicly about the investigations. However, their claims provided context to the allegations already laid out in five lawsuits filed by the families of the four workers killed and the surviving victim.
Given the damage to the warehouse, government officials and investigators admit the exact cause of the fire may never be known. On December 1, 2022, flames suddenly shot out of what was believed to be a furniture warehouse near Taft, in southern Orange County. Firefighters quickly determined the space was leased to MITS and was used to store fireworks.
READ: Deadly warehouse fire ignited by fireworks ‘testing,’ new lawsuit claims
Nowhere to hide
Since the fire, federal, state and county investigators, as well as attorneys for the victims, have been zeroing in on the lack of safety practices at the business, the sources said.
First, they talked about one of the lawsuits’ clearest allegations, that “The defendant failed to outlaw unsafe practices in the workplace, including but not limited to the use of electronic equipment, cellular phones, computers, communications devices, photography, smoking, vaping, ignition sources, and improper clothing and footwear that creates static electricity.”
MITS workers were allowed to bring cell phones, lighters and vape pens into the areas where fireworks were being stored and handled, the sources said, despite the serious risk one would cause electrical static or a flame and set the merchandise off.
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Additionally, the company did not equip the facility with anti-static areas or mats on the floor to prevent sparking, the sources said, which added to lawsuit references of failing to provide or maintain “adequate fire safety products and equipment,” along with mentioned inadequate fire extinguishers and fire alarm systems.
The company also didn’t provide anti-static clothing for workers to wear, sources said, confirming a claim made in four of the five lawsuits. One of the sources explained it’s common for employees to wear this type of clothing head to toe while working around explosive material, including anti-static underwear.
The sources said the warehouse lacked a bunker-like facility that could be used by workers to hide in cases of emergency like a fire. The only non-warehouse space inside the building was an enclosed office with an open-air ceiling, they said.
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The sources said the property also lacked a sprinkler system appropriate for fireworks storage, and one investigator said their team was still examining the structure of the roof to determine if it was built appropriately to handle emergencies.
The sources pushed back on a claim made by the property’s landlord in a lawsuit that employees were “testing” fireworks inside the facility when the fire broke out. Instead, they were allegedly completing a process called “matching,” which is used to prepare fireworks for elaborate shows and involves pulling out individual fuses and hooking the fireworks up to a central motherboard.
However, as the landlord’s lawsuit mentioned, the facility was not designed or permitted to store and prepare fireworks. The landlord said he rented it to MITS for corporate office space.
READ: 2 dead after massive fire breaks out at Orange County fireworks warehouse
WFTV’s sources said one of the victims was researching safety regulations for fireworks storage and handling and sharing their findings with other employees in the days leading up to the fire.
Orange County Commissioner Mayra Uribe said the dangers involved in what MITS was doing made the county examine its regulations. County staff and attorneys are putting the finishing touches on a proposal to forbid fireworks from being stored within 2,000 feet of any homes or apartments, Uribe said, four times further than the county currently allows.
“We’re asking responsible business owners to come register, get into compliance,” she said, since zero fireworks storage facilities are registered in the county. “Make sure that not only is it a safe environment for you, but the people who work there.”
READ: ‘She’s strong’: Woman who survived warehouse fire that killed 4 remains in medically-induced coma
The sources also revealed three of the company’s workers survived the fire, unscathed, because they were outside working on the truck used to transport fireworks to customers when the fire broke out.
However, they said that truck – and others used by MITS -- is also being looked at by investigators as they examine the company’s business practices.
Commissioner Uribe confirmed the truck was a white F-150 with a flatbed trailer hooked to its back. It was seen parked outside the warehouse in WFTV’s video taken during and after the fire.
READ: 4th person dies after last week’s fire at Orange County warehouse used to store fireworks
The sources said the truck didn’t meet basic safety requirements mandated for fireworks transport, such as mounted signs warning that explosive cargo was on-board. Investigators said they were still trying to figure out if the trucks followed appropriate transportation routes but didn’t specify what that meant.
“What would happen if that went off at a four-way-stop at a corner [or] driving through a neighborhood?” Uribe asked. “We have no idea, and those are the questions that until this happens, I tell people this tragedy cannot happen again.”
Unlike the warehouse restrictions, Orange County won’t have the regulatory power to tighten oversight of trucks hauling explosives. That responsibility largely falls to the state and FDOT. Families and attorneys have indicated they plan to approach lawmakers about proposed changes to state law.
No criminal charges have been filed in the wake of this incident, though various agencies and parties are still pursuing their own investigations or waiting on others to wrap up.
ATF investigators said that they are no longer pursuing criminal charges but are still working on the regulatory side.
MITS representatives haven’t returned a request for comment.
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