30 Years Later, Man Returns To Scene Of Pawnee County Fireworks Explosion

Thursday, June 25th 2015, 7:55 pm
By: Tess Maune

In Pawnee County 30 years ago, 21 people died in an explosion at Aerlex Fireworks, the nation's largest firework factory at the time.

Investigators believe friction ignited fireworks, triggering a massive explosion.

On the 30th anniversary, one man who lost family and friends in the accident finally returned to the scene. He said it's a tragedy he relives every day.

A few parts of the factory are still standing, but most of the old Aerlex Fireworks plant is gone. Leslie Harper says the memories are stronger than ever.

“The initial blast was over there,” he pointed out.

Everywhere Harper turned there were reminders of that day back in 1985.

“That's where the assembly room was,” he recalled. “I still see the same things I [saw] when I was 13.”

Harper was barely a teenager when his dad's fireworks factory exploded. He heard the blast from miles away and rode his dirt bike to the secluded business.

He and an oil pump worker were there before anyone else.

Harper said he's still haunted by the images of that day.

“First person I remember seeing was a friend of my dad's; he was on fire,” he said.

That man and five more survived, but 21 other workers didn't.

6/27/2010 Related Story: Pawnee Co. Woman Remembers Loved Ones Lost In Fireworks Plant Explosion

“Just wish you could go back and change time. There was a lot of good people out here,” Harper said.

He knew every person who worked at the plant. His 17-year-old brother, aunt, uncle and three cousins were among the fallen.

“21 funerals in three days, it makes an impact on you, not just me, on everybody,” he said.

The impact was such that Thursday was the first time Harper has returned since the day of the explosion, and the emotions were raw.

“I thought I'd be a lot tougher today than I was, and you look at it, it's all still here. Trees have gotten bigger and the grass has gotten taller, but it doesn't change anything,” he said.

Unchanged, just like the ache in his heart.

“You think as you get older that you can accept it a lot better; you can't ever accept it. Maybe you can block it out, but you can't accept it,” Harper said.

Harper's father, Richard Johnson, who owned the business, was seriously injured but lived through the blast.

The factory never reopened.