Deadly fireworks explosion in La Follette: 20 years later

Some of the first witnesses recall the terrifying moments from that day

LAFOLLETTE (WATE) – It’s been 20 years since a fireworks warehouse explosion in LaFollette, Tennessee. The blast claimed four lives on June 5, 1997, at Pyro Shows, leaving behind twisted metal and debris. It even pushed a church off its foundation.

Luther Seiber, Gretchen Wells, Allison Hale and Tim Petree died in the blasts. The explosion was ruled an industrial accident.

The blast was felt from miles away. Multiple agencies arrived to the scene and gathered evidence scattered across properties nearby. Ron Mcclellan was the Campbell County sheriff at the time. He still remembers this day well.

“Doesn’t seem like 20 years,” said Mclellan.

He still has photos taken by his department that day. One photo was from a few miles away and it captured the smoke cloud from the explosion.

“It was unbelievable,” he said.

It was an unreal moment even for someone parked right across the street from the blast. He said it was the first time he’d been on the road in six months.

“I could feel the concussion and the car…the front of the car scooted over,” he said.

He first thought an airplane had crashed. Then, he quickly realized what really happened.

“First thing I thought of was how many people are in that facility,” said Mclellan.

One moment haunting him most decades later is his last interaction with one of those people just moments before the explosion.

“One of the fellas that worked there was pulling his truck in. I waved at him and he was fatally injured in it,” he said.

Less than 200 yards away was Jackie Phillips in his home. He still lives there 20 years later. He remembered his 13-year-old son and other kids in a panic when the power of the blast knocked them over in the front yard.

“They come running through the house yelling help me,” said Phillips.

His home was damaged in the blast. All of the windows were blown out and sheets of twisted metal were crashed into his yard.

“It was pretty much a disaster,” Phillips said.

A church also across the street, Midway Baptist Church, was damaged during the explosion. It was pushed off its foundation and it lost all of its windows.

“We didn’t know how bad the explosion was but it put a scare in all of us,” said Johnny Dabney.

Dabney is the current pastor at Midway Baptist Church. His father was the pastor 20 years ago. The family was worried he might have been at the church during the time of the blast.

“It was a great relief when dad wasn’t here. He was on the other side of town,” said Dabney.

It took the congregation six months to rebuild. On this anniversary, Dabney and his family will mostly remember the victims and their families.

“The buildings and all that, that can be replaced but the lives that were lost, that can’t be replaced,” Dabney said.

Mclellan and Phillips also continued to think about the families and their pain.

“Our memories are still with the families,” said Mclellan.

The owner of Pyro Shows, Lansden Hill, declined a request for an interview but said he thinks about the families almost every day.

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