Holding on to History: Locals recount 1988 fireworks mishap at Bayfront

Published: Jul. 3, 2023 at 10:19 PM CDT
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DULUTH, MN. (Northern News Now) - The history of the Fourth Fest at Bayfront Park goes back many decades, with one of the most memorable fireworks shows happening 35 years ago.

“It’s amazing nobody was killed. If you weren’t at Duluth’s Bayfront Park last night, what you’re about to see will amaze you, too,” said Michelle Lee during a 1988 news broadcast about the explosive Independence Day where 1,800 fireworks went off at the same time in Duluth’s Bayfront Park.

People came from far and wide, Rosemarie Mitchel urged her parents to come all the way from New York to see the celebration of the country in Duluth.

“I told them you’ve got to come to Fourth of July here, they have beautiful fireworks, you’ve got to come,” said Mitchell.

Sue DeLoach brought three children with her to Bayfront in hopes to share many “ooohs and ahhhs” at the show in the sky.

It wasn’t long before something else sparked their attention.

“What I saw was something like this and fanned out, it was not real big and I thought that was interesting because it looks like it was landing on land,” said DeLoach on her initial reaction before adding, “Then there was a huge explosion and people started running and screaming.”

Once Sue had realized what was happening she grab the kids and began retreating from the fireworks. An investigation revealed that the explosion was caused by a dud shell falling back on the rest of the fireworks.

Up at the Central High School hill, a group of people were watching the fireworks below, including Carol Nadeu-Riley who was taking pictures.

It took her a moment to figure out why all the fireworks were down so low.

“We were really confused until we saw all the emergency vehicles converging and we watched them come in off the freeway and coming over the overpass down to Canal Park,” said Nadeu-Riley.

Twenty minutes’ worth of fireworks had gone off in less than two minutes, causing a fire at Bayfront that took 90 minutes to suppress.

Incredibly, as Michelle Lee stated in her report, people suffered only minor injuries.

Rosemarie Mitchell’s parents’ first Duluth fireworks show didn’t go as planned.

“So, that was kind of a bummer and they never came again on the 4th of July after that,” said Mitchell.

Since the incident in 1988, Duluth’s fireworks have not been launched from land. In 1989, the city began launching the fireworks from a barge in the bay.

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