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Playing with fire Jack Stewart's counting down to his annual South Buffalo spectacle, even if it is illegal

Some people ignore the state's ban on fireworks and buy a sparkler or a few firecrackers to entertain the kids on Independence Day.

Then there's Jack Stewart.

Stewart spends thousands of dollars on fireworks and puts on a Fourth of July aerial extravaganza in his South Buffalo neighborhood that is set to music and can last more than an hour.

"The sky, from one end of Geary [Street] to another, was brilliant with firepower," Stewart said of his biggest show yet, in 2005, when he spent $12,000 on fireworks.

He gets permission to close off part of Geary Street for a block party that draws hundreds of people with karaoke, food and a bounce house for children. He also prints commemorative T-shirts and pins patriotic decorations on the street's trees and poles.

One problem. It is illegal. And last year federal agents arrested him and confiscated a truckload of his ordnance.

But Stewart said he is doing it all again this year even though he risks harsher punishment.

"The show must go on as it's a South Buffalo tradition!" neighbor Matt Chido Sr. wrote in one of the dozens of pleas for leniency sent to the judge who sentenced Stewart last year.

Stewart may take his pyrotechnics to an extreme, but he's one of thousands of area residents who defy New York's ban on fireworks as part of their Fourth of July festivities.

Police keep busy this time of year responding to complaints of noisy backyard fireworks.

"They must know that it's illegal, but they do it anyway," said Capt. Ronald Vogt of the Lockport Police Department.

Law enforcement officials say the practice is unsafe and puts neighbors at risk because the fireworks can spark fires in densely populated areas.

Several people have died here in fires or explosions sparked by fireworks, according to news reports, including a Buffalo firefighter in July 1997 and two Southtowns men in June 2000.

And the fireworks are particularly unsettling to some area veterans who were traumatized by their combat experience and find the noise and smoke brings back awful memories of war.

"Any Vietnam vet will tell you they don't like the Fourth of July. The worst holiday ever," said one Town of Lancaster resident and Marine veteran who spoke on condition he not be named.

>A firecracker from the start

Though fireworks are banned in New York -- unless as part of a licensed display -- thousands of residents trek to Pennsylvania or Ohio to buy them and bring them back.

Most stick with sparklers and small firecrackers.

That's not enough for the Jack Stewarts of this world.

His love affair goes back to his youth, when he'd get in trouble if he played with firecrackers.

"I vowed when I became a man nobody was going to tell me how many fireworks I could set off," said Stewart, who was born on Oct. 31 and is also well known for his Halloween bashes.

He said he started his annual production about 20 years ago and the Geary Street block party has gotten bigger every year.

"It's very, very wonderful. The whole neighborhood loves it. It's very safe," said John Marotta, Stewart's next-door neighbor, whose family helps with the party each year.

Stewart said he gets his fireworks from an Ohio wholesaler and he buys extra, small fireworks that he resells to recoup some of the cost of the show.

Two years ago, traffic stopped on nearby Seneca Street to watch the display, and the spent shells filled a 40-foot Dumpster, Stewart said.

He also says he hasn't had a problem in his two decades of setting off fireworks.

He knows this is illegal, but he's still miffed by his arrest.

"It's as American as apple pie. It's who we are," said Stewart, 45, who works as a bill collector.

Despite his arrest, Stewart still put on a show in 2006 thanks to leftover and donated fireworks.

His case was assigned to Buffalo City Court, and countless people wrote notes to the judge defending Stewart and praising his fireworks display.

"[In 2005] we had more than 200 fireworks and it was a blast of fun. Oh my God, I didn't go to sleep until like 7:00 in the morning it was so awesome and fun and cool AND LOUD!" wrote one girl, Ashlee, 9 1/2 .

The judge dismissed the charges on condition that Stewart stay out of trouble for the next 12 months, Stewart said, a period that goes past Wednesday.

>Blasts from the past

Not everyone is thrilled at the prospect of large-scale, unauthorized fireworks shows.

While many residents enjoy hearing fireworks on Independence Day, they say the backyard fireworks begin days before July Fourth and last for weeks afterward. The noise terrifies dogs, and the smoke can fill the skies overhead.

"It's big-time over here. In fact, on my street they put on a better display than they do downtown," said Don Harrison, a 76-year-old West Side resident.

And hearing and seeing fireworks can trigger flashbacks for veterans of the thoughts and physical sensations they experienced during war, said Nancy J. Smyth, dean of the University at Buffalo School of Social Work and an expert in post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

A number of local media and billboard companies carry ads from out-of-state companies that sell fireworks, and Magilla Schaus, a Buffalo firefighter who is on disability leave, said he thinks it's irresponsible of them to do this.

He said he has seen ads for Phantom Fireworks on several local TV stations.

Schaus attended the funeral of Firefighter Michael Seguin, who died in 1997 battling a blaze that was started by a bottle rocket.

"It's not doing justice to Michael Seguin's memory," Schaus said.

Jim Toellner, president and general manager of WGRZ-TV, told The Buffalo News that the stations have a right to carry the ads.

However, in response to viewer complaints, he said the station has moved the remaining fireworks commercials to off-peak hours and agreed to no longer carry such ads after this year.

Beyond the fact that fireworks are illegal, police are concerned when people who lack the proper training store and set off highly explosive devices.

"The people who do that, they put other houses in the neighborhood and the firemen at risk," said Tony Clabeau, the Erie County Sheriff's Office bomb squad commander.

There were 49 fireworks-related deaths for consumers between 2000 and 2006, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Mishandled fireworks easily can spark fires in Buffalo and the inner-ring suburbs, which are densely packed with wooden-frame structures. The situation is made worse by recent dry weather.

The Sheriff's Office bomb squad often assists local police agencies when large quantities of fireworks are involved.

The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives handles cases of commercial-caliber fireworks and the manufacturing or large-scale reselling of these devices, said David DeJoe, agent in charge of the bureau's Buffalo office.

DeJoe said he has taken part in the investigation of 25 deaths linked to the illegal production and storage of fireworks. "This stuff is extremely volatile," he said.

DeJoe declined to comment on Stewart's plans to hold another show beyond saying he is sure that if Stewart commits the same crime again, his prior conviction will affect any future sentencing decisions.

>Stewart won't be stopped

Stewart said he is not worried that authorities will read this article and decide to shut down his party before July Fourth.

He said Buffalo police know what he does because there's usually a patrol car parked near the street during the show.

And a couple of weeks ago, another Buffalo officer pulled into his driveway. The officer asked Stewart, "Are you still doing your show this year?"

The answer, he insists, is yes.


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