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Eyewitness: Fireworks accident decapitates Fargo man

FARGO -- An eyewitness here says a Fourth of July fireworks accident decapitated a Fargo man Monday night. Police identified the victim as Jesse William Burley, a 41-year-old father of two, who enjoyed life to its fullest, said Burley's stepfathe...

Area of Monday night fireworks accident
Passersby view the exact area on Kelly street in north Fargo Tuesday, July 5, 2011, where a man died from a firework accident Monday night. Chris Franz / The Forum
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FARGO -- An eyewitness here says a Fourth of July fireworks accident decapitated a Fargo man Monday night.

Police identified the victim as Jesse William Burley, a 41-year-old father of two, who enjoyed life to its fullest, said Burley's stepfather Chuck Asplin of Fargo.

Chris Hanson, Burley's neighbor who saw the accident, was packing up his car to leave north Fargo's Riviera Heights mobile home park as tornado sirens sounded just before 9:30 p.m.

Burley was getting ready to set off a second round of what Hanson said he believed was either a homemade or illegal artillery shell firework.

"He went over into the middle of the street, and within 10 seconds of us talking to him, he lit it and all we saw was a cloud of smoke, a bang," Hanson said.

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What Hanson saw next immediately sent him into shock, he said.

"When I walked up to his body, it was nothing but his shoulders down," Hanson said Tuesday.

Police Lt. Joel Vettel said Tuesday police are confident the device was a commercial-grade firework, which are federally regulated.

The area Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is assisting Fargo police to investigate whether this type of firework was illegal and how it was obtained, Vettel said.

Hanson said that on Monday evening Burley asked him over to his trailer to check out something. Burley showed Hanson fireworks that contained a warning that read, "If found please report to the U.S. government," Hanson said.

"Right there and then I knew that I had to get away because I was not going to be involved in that," Hanson said.

Burley ignited the first firework, which went off with a big bang but no injuries, Hanson said.

"You could see the shock waves in the air," he said.

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An hour and a half later, Burley lit the fatal second firework, Hanson said.

The accident should be used as an example of how dangerous fireworks can be, Hanson said.

"I'm never going to light a firecracker off again in my life," he said.

Burley's family remembered Jesse as a good-hearted kid, who would do anything for anybody, said Asplin, his stepfather and boss at Chuck's Sandjacking in Fargo.

Jesse Burley had a 2-year-old and a 3-year-old son who were not at his residence at the time of the accident.

Fargo police recovered a third firework device in Burley's home on Tuesday and a metal pipe near the accident site at the 3500 block of Kelley Street North that was reportedly used as a mortar to launch shells.

"It appears that he was lighting the device off, and so we don't feel that there were others involved in the incident at this point," Vettel said.

Burley's body was sent to Bismarck for an autopsy. There will be a memorial service at 2 p.m. Friday at Boulger Funeral Home in Fargo.

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