PEORIA — A large-scale illegal fireworks display in a housing complex adjacent to the state’s largest Fourth of July celebration turned into what police termed a near-riot Monday as tens of thousands of revelers tried to filter out of Downtown.
As the grand finale of the Red, White and Boom! event exploded over the Illinois River, emergency responders were called at 9:46 p.m. to a trash bin fire in nearby Taft Homes, where commercial-grade fireworks had been shooting into the sky since before the riverfront show began.
A fire engine and two Peoria police officers responded, but encountered what police described as a crowd of hundreds of people and an impassable Hancock Street choked with trash and fireworks — both live and spent. The debris blocked access to the burning trash bin.
Police at that point began ordering the crowds to disperse, and firefighters hosed down the live fireworks and smoldering remnants of spent shells. That’s when mortar-type fireworks began firing toward and exploding near the officers and firefighters. Some people also hurled bottles and rocks, according to police.
At least three shells exploded on the engine, causing burn marks, and one hit a firefighter in the shoulder, charring his heat-resistant gear and temporarily initiating hearing loss. Division Chief Gary Van Voorhis said Tuesday the firefighter declined medical attention at the scene and remained on duty.
One of the first responding police officers also suffered some hearing loss and sought treatment at a local hospital later in the night, according to Peoria police Capt. Mike Scally, who also was the event commander for the riverfront fireworks display. The injured officer was not admitted to the hospital and had submitted a report on the incident before ending his shift.
“It was rowdy, and those fireworks were dangerous,” Scally said, estimating that the mortar-type fireworks had a “three- to four-inch” diameter. “They’re designed to go up in the air, not horizontal.”
As those first fireworks exploded around the firefighters, police radioed for additional backup, drawing officers who had been stationed Downtown to direct traffic, as well as troopers with the Illinois State Police and Park District Police.
Crowds initially resisted commands from police, authorities said, blocking the path of responding officers who used pepper ball guns to break up the group. One officer drove through a locked, gated portion of the wrought-iron fence that surrounds Taft to provide additional access to distressed officers. Doug Burgess, the Peoria police public information officer, said as many as 200 pepper balls were fired before the crowd came under control.
“Every officer that responded said pretty much the same thing — that it was chaotic and like a riot,” Burgess said. “Every officer received bruises and burn marks.”
The fire engine never made it to the burning trash bin. Van Voorhis said the fire was not threatening residents or property and was allowed to burn as officers assisted the engine in turning around and exiting Taft.
“Our main concern was the safety of our firefighters” once it became apparent no people or property were in danger, he said. “It’s not deserving for anyone to be shot at with fireworks.”
Van Voorhis added that firefighters have been targeted by fireworks before, but that the magnitude of the incident Monday was unprecedented. In response, the department will review its policy of how to respond to crowded areas with fires that don’t appear to threaten anyone’s physical well-being or nearby property.
Peoria police, too, will devise enhanced security measures for Taft Homes next year, Burgess said. Revelers there have traditionally held private firework displays on the Fourth and previously made targets of police and passersby, though not to the same extent as Monday.
The Peoria Housing Authority has staffed the Taft property with additional security for Fourth of July events for many years to deal with the large volume of people who come to the area for fireworks in the housing project and on the riverfront.
Meghan Lundeen, a spokeswoman for the PHA, said Tuesday that additional security was on hand Monday night and that staff cleaned up a large amount of firework debris Tuesday.
“There’s always more people (in Taft) on the Fourth. … A lot of people who are on our site at night are not residents,” she said. “In any neighborhood, more people means more potential for chaos.”
By Matt Buedel
In: Other News
Tags: Police, Firefighters, Shot, Fireworks,
Location: Peoria, Illinois, United States (load item map)
Marked as: approved, featured
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