The Columbus Dispatch
Police report clarifies details in Kivlenieks fireworks death
It took only seconds.
That's how fast a July 4 amateur fireworks display in Novi, Michigan, turned a gleeful backyard wedding into a terrifying, chaotic scene that took the life of Blue Jackets goalie Matiss Kivlenieks at the home of Manny Legace, his goaltending coach.
Kivlenieks, a 24-year old prospect with a future as bright as his smile, died after he was struck by a fireworks mortar shell fired from a tube that accidentally tilted toward the hot tub where he was located. Almost five months since the fatal accident, more details were learned Wednesday after Novi police released a heavily-redacted report about the case.
Police did not recommend criminal charges, calling what happened a tragic accident, and Oakland County prosecutor Karen Mcdonald's office agreed. No criminal charges will be sought and the case is officially considered closed.
What's clear from non-redacted portions of the report is that a good time became a nightmare in a literal flash.
According to unnamed eyewitnesses quoted in the report, at least one of nine mortar tubes installed in a consumer grade “cake” style fireworks rack tilted away from a nearby lake that abuts Legace's yard. It pointed instead toward an elevated hot tub ledge where Kivlenieks and others were seated.
A witness sitting near Kivlenieks described it to investigators as being “like a gun pointed right at you,” and said he noticed the fireworks box had “flipped” to point in their direction. After yelling “bail!” to those nearby, he quickly took cover.
One of the witnesses interviewed was an unidentified Legace “family friend” who had also conducted amateur fireworks displays there previously. After igniting the device that caused Kivlenieks' death, he told police in a phone interview that one shot misfired toward the house and another tube then tilted in that direction.
He said he attempted to alter the direction of the mortar tube manually but was unsuccessful.
Another witness, a woman seated on the other side of the yard in a grassy area, told police she saw the man in charge of the display attempt to kick the mortar tube in a different direction at the last second. After it didn't work, she said he grabbed the box and pointed it toward the lake for the remaining shots to fire.
The report describes the launch area as a breakwall made of landscaping stones that run along the edge of Legace's property on the lake side. Police said the launch site was below the ledge of the hot tub, on top of the breakwall stones. Police measured the distance between the launch of the shell and where it struck Kivlenieks in the chest as 19 feet. The Dispatch spoke with two pyrotechnics experts in July who were stunned to hear how the incident occurred. One of them, Travis Chrisman, said initial reports citing a distance of 10 feet between the device and Kivlenieks was troubling. Nineteen feet wouldn't meet the minimum requirement for Chrisman, father of former Ohio State punter Drue Chrisman.
“I usually recommend that they're like 50 yards away, at a bare minimum,” Chrisman told The Dispatch in July, "and that would only be if you had family-only around. If I'm at a crowd and I've got a bunch of people around, I want to be 100 yards away.”
Police said all of the fireworks in question were purchased legally under Michigan law, which does not regulate or stipulate a minimum launch distance from those viewing.
Police took the device that led to Kivlenieks' death as evidence and still have it.
“I was able to view and photograph the nine-shot (cake) style firework,” an investigator wrote. “I observed one of the tubes was loose and tilted within the launching box. All others appeared to still be secure.”
It wasn't the only one used that night. Multiple racks were fired. There was even a flat wooden table top with mortar tubes screwed into it.
The only device that caused an issued was the consumer grade device that caused Kivlenieks' death. Purchased from a Phantom Fireworks location, according to the police report, the device is called a “Mars Retrograde” nine-shot, cake style rack with three rows of three tubes installed in a portable box. It was purchased by one of the witnesses, who told police he'd hosted similar fireworks displays in his yard for more than 15 years.
The report does not say whether the device at fault was secured to the stone breakwall to prevent it from tipping over. It does say all fireworks devices that night were originally angled toward the lake.
Police interviewed the witness in charge of lighting the fireworks by phone, and the report does not state specifically when the interview occurred. After describing his failed attempt to change the direction of the mortar tube, he told the investigator that he hadn't been drinking alcohol.