Travis Chrisman and Steve Graves are in the fireworks business.
When they heard about the death of Blue Jackets goaltender Matiss Kivlenieks after he was struck in the chest by fireworks in Michigan on July 4, they were, like others, devastated by the tragedy.
But they also are left with questions.
Chrisman, the father of former Ohio State punter Drue Chrisman, owns Party by Trav’s, a fireworks store in Indiana.
“The description of the accident — I'm having a hard time comprehending how that could happen,” Chrisman said.
Police in Novi, Michigan, say Kivlenieks was struck by a shot from a fireworks mortar tube as he tried to rush out of a hot tub where he and others had been sitting. Kivlenieks and fellow Blue Jackets goalie Elvis Merzlikins were attending a party at the home of goalie coach Manny Legace following the wedding of Legace’s daughter.
Police believe the mortar tube was accidentally angled toward the hot tub. After the first shot fired toward the hot tub, Kivlenieks, 24, was struck in the left side of his chest by a 3-inch diameter shell that came from a commercial "cake style" 9-shot rack with three rows of three mortars.
Many questions remain, and police are not expected to provide additional details until the official police report is issued next week
Until then, Chrisman and Graves wonder how such a tragedy could have happened. They say the fireworks industry is one of the most regulated in the country, and that the 9-shot, 3-inch type is one of the safer racks.
“I mean, that is just such a freakishly rare incident,” Chrisman said.
According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, which regulates the fireworks industry, 18 people died from fireworks accidents in 2020. An estimated 15,600 suffered injuries requiring emergency room care.
“Most of the injuries that occur are because of misuse of the product, and generally the people are found to be either under the influence of drugs or alcohol,” said Graves, executive director of the Indiana Fireworks Association. “That is the vast majority of injuries. However, accidents do happen.”
Police indicated that alcohol does not appear to be a factor with the person operating the device that led to Kivlenieks’ death. That person's identity has not been released.
Chrisman and Graves are troubled by reports that Kivlenieks and others were in close range to the mortar in the Legace backyard, which also includes a swimming pool. The Daily Mail, a British newspaper, reported that police said Kivlenieks was 10 feet away. Novi Police Lt. Jason Meier, the lead investigator in the case, has not released the distance between the mortar and hot tub.
“I usually recommend that they're like 50 yards away, at a bare minimum,” Chrisman said, “and that would only be if you had family-only around. If I'm at a crowd and I've got a bunch of people around, I want to be 100 yards away.
“The idea that (Kivlenieks) was only 10 feet away from it, that's completely wrong.”
It’s not known where the mortar was located on the Legace property. The hot tub and pool area appear to be elevated about 6 feet above a small grassy area. Even so, the fireworks would have to have been fired at close to a horizontal angle to hit Kivlenieks. They are designed, obviously, to shoot vertically.
Chrisman said the base of such 9-shot mortars typically weigh 25-30 pounds, which is designed to keep them from tipping over. He also urges customers to add braces for additional stability.
“We’ve got signs up everywhere, ‘Don't forget to brace your fireworks,’ and basically that means put it in a situation where it can't fall over,” Chrisman said.
Fireworks come in three grades. Grade A — the most powerful — is for military use, B for use by professionals, and Grade C is for commercial use.
Graves said that when Indiana legalized fireworks for non-professionals, there were concerns about injuries and deaths.
“So the legislature said that we were going to mandate that the state Board of Health would issue an injury report every year,” he said. “And the injury rates have gone down so significantly that in the last five or six years that the Department of Health doesn’t even issue a report anymore.
"Accidents happen. Injuries happen. But the vast majority of them has been misuse of the product.”
Chrisman said one recent fatality happened when an inebriated man placed a mortar on top of his head and was killed by the force of the blast. Other significant injuries happen when a firework is delayed and someone looks down into the tube and it discharges.
“This was the first case in my 15 years that I have heard of someone gets struck by a mortar that far away (and dies),” Graves said. “I mean, he wasn't looking over the top of it. It came through the tube, which should have slowed down the velocity. But it must have been a very powerful product.”
Chrisman said so much of the Kivlenieks story defies logic.
“So many things about this just don't make sense,” he said. “Ten feet away doesn't make sense. (The mortar) falling over doesn't make sense. And dying from it (doesn’t make sense).”
He said the Kivlenieks death breaks his heart.
“Boy, I feel sorry for their family and him and the community around them,” he said. “This is supposed to be a celebration of the greatest country in the world and the people who sacrificed their lives to get us to this point. It's definitely not supposed to be something that ends in tragedy.”