Every Brookfield Fourth of July was always pretty much the same, up until 1972. The parade stepped off promptly at 10 o’clock in the morning, following the usual three big, bombastic BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!s that shook the windows of the village. This signaled the start of the parade.
And, in 1972, there didn’t seem to be anything much different about July 4. Except for the weather. It had turned cold, OK, unseasonably cool for July. Temperatures during the day only inched into the 60s, thanks to a north wind. Thick crowds of parade watchers donned sweaters and jackets.
The parade ended at Kiwanis Park, where the festivities continued. Elsewhere, all through the day, sounds of illegal fireworks being set off punctuated the air. Later on, backyard chefs didn’t mind huddling a little closer to their grills.
As the day faded into twilight, blasts and booms competed with the shrieks and snaps of bottle rockets, increasing in intensity as darkness blanketed the village.
Around 9 p.m., a dense crowd of villagers and visitors, estimated at up to 20,000, gathered at Jaycee/Ehlert Park, preparing to be “oohed” and “ahhed” by the fireworks show. But now it was even colder. People were wearing jackets and coats.
At Ehlert, the first aerial bombs went up. Curious and excited eyes watched as the rockets were inserted into the upward-facing tubes, then lit at the ends of long fuses by a green flare.
After each fuse was lit to its sizzle, everybody felt the impact of the hollow BOOM in the pits of their stomachs, as each skyrocket zipped skyward, exploding as planned into a crackling cascade of twinkling glory.
Then, part way into the show, disaster struck.
There are conflicting accounts about what happened next. It all happened so fast. Some say the sputtering green flare spat sparks into one of the cardboard boxes still containing skyrockets. Still another source says that someone in the crowd threw a sparkler into a box, but the crowd was located so far away that this seems impossible.
According to the Times newspaper for July 12, Fire Chief Ed Gorniak saw sparks fly out of one of the launching tubes, and the flaming bits landed in one of the cardboard boxes. Two firemen, Bob Faulk and Phil Anselmo, grabbed a hand pump and ran to douse the box. But they were too late.
One rocket screamed west, along the ground, and seconds later the whole box started going up; then the others, too.
Gorniak and all the other firemen shouted for spectators to seek shelter. Stated the Times, “This tiny delay gave people enough time to run behind the cars.” Added Gorniak, “I am sure this action avoided serious injury.”
However, there were injuries. Brookfield resident Fred Blazevich was taken to LaGrange Community Hospital to treat “an apparent heart attack.” Norbert W. Feret of Chicago, age 20, and one of the three men setting off the fireworks display, was taken to the hospital for burn treatment on his left thigh.
“It was like World War II all at once,” he told the Chicago Tribune.
This was a sentiment echoed by others. Former veterans of the war “likened it to Anzio Beach during World War II.”
Forty-one years later, people who were there still remember the event.
“All started OK, then BOOM!” remembers Judy Plachetka Golitko, Miss Brookfield for 1972. “People began running towards us. We were further away. … We stood up and watched the entire lot of fireworks [going] off. We ran for our lives … we thought we were going to die.”
Phil Weihofen reported that “on our way running out, my friend Greg Pardini got hit and it burned a hole in his sweatshirt. I guess he was lucky; it could have been a great deal worse. Rockets [flew] two feet over our heads.”
“I remember my mom was nervous, because she couldn’t find my sister,” recalled Shelly Frazier. “My fiancée threw me to the ground. Afterward a stranger of around age 20 ran up and hugged me. She was so scared.”
People watching further away from the park wondered why the show had ended so early. Then they heard sirens and knew that something had happened.
Miraculously, no one was seriously hurt. It was a few years later that the fireworks show was reinstated, with even further safety precautions initiated.
The catastrophe was duly reported in local and Chicago papers, and even made the news as far away as Tampa, Fla., and Hawaii.
It was an event that many would rather not remember, but cannot forget. Yes, that was 41 years ago, but its effect still lingers today. Martha Shepard says she is “still very cautious around fireworks. I still think they’re blowing up!”