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Floorboard fireworks 

RARELY A JULY FOURTH PASSES that I don’t recall an unplanned fireworks show that occurred—most appropriately—in the town of Liberty in Casey County on an Independence Day evening during the mid-1980s.

No, I wasn’t there to witness the event, but was given a firsthand account 20 years later when I tracked down the central figure involved, Gary Burke Jr., who remembered it all too vividly.

He was 17 at the time, and he and five of his teenage buddies were in his 1970 Chevy Nova, cruising around Liberty and tossing fireworks out the car windows. It may have been disturbing the peace, but otherwise seemed a fairly harmless celebration of a July Fourth evening in the normally tranquil heart of Liberty—scarcely a block away from where the statue of a World War I doughboy stands watch over the courthouse square.

All was going well, Burke said, until one of the boys in the back seat threw a lit firecracker out the window, and the wind blew it back into car. It landed in the back floorboard, where the boys naturally tried to stomp out the fuse. 

Did I mention Burke’s estimate that there were about 1,000 firecrackers and 60 bottle rockets in the floorboard?

“It lit everything,” he told me.

In the frantic but spectacular fireworks display that followed, he remembered bottle rockets bouncing off the Nova’s windshield, dashboard, ceiling, seats, windows and occupants, not to mention those firecrackers in the floorboard.

The few lucky people who were on the street that night saw a fireworks show to remember. 

The smoke got so thick that Burke couldn’t see to steer the Nova, which rammed a telephone pole, jamming the driver’s side door and leaving the passenger door the only escape route from the two-door Chevy.

Regrettably, the facts are foggy on what happened next, but as luck would have it, deputy state fire marshal James Helm was at a church nearby, and recently confirmed the event.

“I think we were in choir practice,” Helm says. “And all of a sudden there was this sound outside. It turned into something you could hardly believe, and I thought, ‘What in the world!’ And I took off running to the back and went out—and there was fireworks going off everywhere in that car.”

It happened so quickly that just as Helm reached the scene, the boys—fearing they were in big trouble—managed to get back in the car and take off in a cloud of smoke.

“I was getting ready to get on somebody’s case, but there was nothing there for me to document,” Helm recalls. “I was with the state fire marshal’s office 29 years, and never saw anything like that.”

Burke, who passed away several years ago, wouldn’t tell me what happened after the boys left the scene, except to say that no one was seriously injured, and that the incident cooled his interest in fireworks, for life. 

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