Fireworks suspected in multiple Northeast Ohio explosions that killed 4 in less than a year

Published: Mar. 21, 2023 at 10:33 PM EDT
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CLEVELAND, Ohio (WOIO) - In the summer of 2022, three people died in an explosion at a Garfield Heights home where investigators found illegal fireworks. This February, an 18-year-old died in a Wickliffe explosion; fireworks and ammo were later found at the scene.

Eight months, two explosions, four deaths and still plenty of questions.

According to federal agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), the frequency of such explosions remained relatively steady.

“The concern we have [is] people who attempt to manufacture their own fireworks,” said Daryl McCormick, special agent in charge of the ATF Columbus field office . “They’ll try to make a firework that’s brighter, more brilliant. As a result, there’s more explosive material and that’s more dangerous.”

McCormick could not discuss specific cases or investigations, but was able to offer 19 News some insight into these situations.

“When there’s a significant amount of [explosive material], it doesn’t take very much to get a detonation and you can have catastrophic results,” he said. “The impact of an explosive device - you can’t take it back. Its forever.”

Last June, 64-year-old Donald Malinowski, 57-year-old Gerald Bateman, and 37-year-old Cassandra Bateman died in an explosion on the 4900 block of East 81st Street in Garfield Heights.

State investigators believe the explosives were being manufactured inside the home.

On Feb. 26, 18-year-old Nathan Greger died in a garage explosion in Wickliffe.

Police said novelty or antique military surplus items were recovered, which included several hollow hand grenade shells, along with firework-related material.

“I’ve worked several of these cases and what I’ve found most often is the curiosity of it. Building your own device,” McCormick said, when asked what their investigations have revealed about the motivation behind keeping and storing explosives. “I’ve seen people tear them apart and try to create bigger versions of [them] with material from numerous shells into one larger device... I would say the curious, the excitement, that’s normally the driving factor.”

According the ATF, there were 87 explosions caused by pyrotechnics or fireworks in the United States in 2021, the last year of public reporting. The bureau does not publish specific numbers for individual states.

Nationwide, there were 428 fireworks-related explosions in 2020 and 251 in 2019.

“I understand it to an degree, but there are safe ways to do it. That’s what we encourage,” McCormick told 19 News. “It’s not just a safety factor for the individual. You can make a bad choice for yourself, but it impacts your neighbors, your family.”

The Wickliffe explosions is still under investigation.