Ten years ago, the Fourth of July turned into a somber occasion when a fireworks explosion on Ocracoke Island claimed the lives of four Wayne County residents.
The tragedy made national news as one of the worst fireworks accidents in U.S. history when it happened in 2009.
For seven years afterward, Ocracoke Island did not hold its annual Independence Day fireworks display. Hyde County commissioners passed a resolution in 2016 restoring the event.
The three men and a woman from Wayne County who died in the explosion were all affiliated with The Lord’s Table Church in Goldsboro. A fifth man survived but was badly burned.
The team of five were reportedly in the back of a truck unloading fireworks for that year’s fireworks on the island.
According to reports, Martez Holland, 27, of Goldsboro, was in the rear of the truck when the blast happened, and was able to jump off the truck. He was reportedly knocked out until paramedics arrived, and received third-degree burns on 20 percent of his body, most extensively to his arms and face.
Charles “Kirk” Kirkland Jr., 49, Lisa Simmons, 41, and Mark Hill, 21, were taken to Pitt County Memorial Hospital in Greenville where they died. Martez Holland’s uncle, Terry Holland, 49, was flown to the North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center at UNC Hospitals, where he later died.
Terry Holland, building maintenance supervisor at The Lord’s Table, was the team leader for Melrose South Pyrotechnics, based near Rock Hill, S.C. According to sources at the church, Simmons and Kirkland did not work for the company but had agreed to help with the event that night.
Kirkland was the son of Charles Kirkland Sr., an associate pastor at the church until his retirement.
Simmons was a volunteer in the children’s church. She was buried in her home state of Georgia, following a memorial service at The Lord’s Table.
Hill had only been attending the church a short time before the accident.
The explosion was initially under investigation. An agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said the cause was ruled an accident. It contributed to several changes in the industry.
In addition to Ocracoke officials curtailing fireworks displays for several years in the aftermath, legislation has since been passed placing new restrictions on safety for pyrotechnic operators.
Sen. Don Davis, D-District 5, was among those supporting the increased safety law, which went into effect in 2010. It called for technicians to be 21 or older, to earn a three-year operating license after completing a training course, passing a written exam and paying $200.
In November 2012, a civil trial in Wayne County Superior Court was stayed pending the appeal of a motion. Four separate claims for civil damages were filed against the fireworks company, Melrose South Pyrotechnics, by the families and estates of the victims.
Between September 2014 and mid-2015, each of those four civil cases were dismissed at separate times, court officials said.
In December 2016, the Ocracoke Occupancy Tax Board voted to recommend the commissioners designate $20,000 from the hotel, motel and vacation rental tax fund to allow fireworks on Ocracoke that year.
The Lord’s Table marked the occasion briefly during Sunday morning’s service. Pastor Ken Jefferson Jr., pastor of student ministries at the time of the tragedy, took a moment during the praise and worship portion of the service to acknowledge the 10-year anniversary of the loss.
It had also memorialized the tragedy one year after it happened, dedicating a park and playground in the victims’ memory. Holland Park — named for Terry Holland but honoring the memory of all four members — included a large wooden cross, benches, swing sets and a basketball court.
The sole survivor, Martez Holland, now 37, required extensive hospitalization at the North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center and ongoing therapies and treatments. He could not be reached for comment.