Families of men killed in fireworks explosion file civil suits

By Catherine Cruz
Published On: May 25 2012 05:48:58 AM HST

It was a little more than a year ago that five men died while trying to dispose of illegal fireworks from a Waikele bunker, and now the first lawsuits on behalf of their families were filed.

HONOLULU -

Justin Joseph Keli'i was 29 years old.  His grandfather, along with other relatives, are suing because they want answers about what happened on April 8, 2011.

Five men died in a Waikele bunker while they were taking apart illegal fireworks.

They want to know whether his death and the death of his co-workers who were hired by Donaldson Enterprises could have been avoided.

Steve Hisaka is the Keli'i family's lawyer.

"The fireworks were being dismantled in a place where they should not have been," said Hisaka.  Hisaka's suit claims that the method the team was using wasn't safe.  He says under the work permit, the men were supposed to destroy the fireworks in an open area like the Koko Head firing range, instead of indoors.

The suit names about a half a dozen local and mainland companies including
VSE Corporation, which hired Donaldson Enterprises as a subcontractor on the project.

Hisaka hopes that during discovery, he and the other attorneys can determine why plans changed.

They question whether the use of a pump powered by an electrical motor, or the use of diesel oil in the enclosed area where the fireworks were stored, contributed to the explosion.

Attorneys with three other law firms filed similar complaints Thursday on behalf of the other victims’ families.

"Each of us has our own way of doing things. We all have our different ways of pursuing things with the same set of information,” said Hisaka.

Last year, the state cited Donaldson Enterprises for unsafe work conditions and levied a $415,000 fine.  The company has appealed.

A second federal investigation into the cause of the blast is still underway.

"The family and friends have truly suffered the loss of Justin, and the other four people. They really were just doing their job, and they paid the price," Hisaka said.

Two of the victims, Robert Freeman and Neil Sprankle, are being represented by the law firm of Devins and Meheula.

Cronin, Fried and Sekiya are representing Bryan Cabalce.

The family of Robert Leahey has hired the Maui law firm of Takatani and Agaran.

Ralph O’Neil, who represents VME Corporation, said while the company acknowledges the blast resulted in a terrible loss of life, he said the company will vigorously fight the claims.

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