MARYSVILLE — For many, the Fourth of July is a day of celebration. The holiday ends just as fast as it came, sprinkling fireworks debris in yards and streets and sulfur in the air. But for Felicia Burlin, the Fourth of July stays with her every day.
“It was the worst day of my life,” said Burlin, of Lynnwood, whose 21-year-old son, Chance Larreau, was killed by a mortar firework explosion on July 4, 2020.
Chance and friends were wrapping up their holiday celebrations for the night near Marysville. Saving the biggest and best for last, they placed the mortars in a tube and lit it, but when the fireworks failed to fly, Chance was the first one to the tube to throw it away. The mortar exploded and Chance suffered massive chest injuries.
Burlin received a frantic call from Chance’s fiance saying that he was unresponsive. Burlin drove to Providence Regional Medical Center Everett, where she was joined by her husband, who is also Chance’s father, Michael Larreau.
“I hugged a pole and cried,” Larreau said. “I screamed. I couldn’t even go in and see him.”
The mortar that was used was too big for the tube it had been placed in, and couldn’t properly launch, according to a report by Marysville Police Department.
Chance’s best friend, who was also nearby, was pelted by flying shrapnel that stopped his heart. He was taken to the hospital by friends before police and fire crews arrived. He ended up in the intensive care unit at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle and was discharged a few weeks later.
A former student at Edmonds-Woodway High School and an outgoing outdoorsman, Chance had celebrated his 21st birthday in May 2020 and had plans for the future, including getting married the following year.
He loved animals, including his three dogs and five ferrets. Burlin remembers a time Chance rescued a turtle from the side of a road, creating a temporary home for it in a small pool with rocks in their backyard. He would tie a balloon to the turtle and watch it walk around the yard.
Chance also loved his family and friends, always offering a hand, Burlin and Larreau said.
“He would go hours out of his way just to go help someone if they were in trouble,” Burlin said. “At any given moment, whether it be 2:30 in the morning or 5 a.m., he would go and help them out.”
Even in his last moments, Chance was helping others — he went to throw the unexploded mortar tube away that night.
“He basically took the hit for his best friends,” Larreau said.
Mortar-type fireworks are legal in Washington. In 2020, 66% of all firework-related injuries in the state were caused by legal fireworks, according to a report by the State Fire Marshal’s Office.
There were 18 fireworks-related deaths across the United States in 2020, a 50% increase from the previous year, according to a report by the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
“There was only 18 deaths … and one of ’em had to be my son,” Larreau said. “I know 18 deaths across the U.S. is a small number, but it’s not that small of a number when it impacts you.”
And as the family approaches the one year mark of Chance’s death, Burlin and Larreau say it still feels new. The pain is fresh; the memories vivid.
Burlin remembers making Chance hug and kiss everyone before he left to celebrate with his friends. Hours later, she received the phone call.
“I relive it in my dreams all the time,” Burlin said.
Both parents are on waiting lists for counseling, a process that has been “ridiculously difficult” because COVID-19 has placed high demands on the profession. A strong family network has been their main support system.
Forgoing a large memorial service, a small group of friends and family gathered at the family home on what would have been his 22nd birthday. For five days, the group crashed in tents in the yard, talked and grieved, and had barbecues and bonfires. They plan on doing something small again on the Fourth of July.
Last year’s Fourth of July was one of the busiest for Dr. Ryan Keay, emergency room medical director at Providence Regional Medical Center Everett. The volume of fireworks-related injuries was high, but safety measures and bans may help decrease the number of cases the hospital sees on the holiday this year.
“Whenever you mix alcohol with fireworks, or have a more celebratory environment, there’s going to be more of a danger,” Keay said. “The best thing to do is go watch fireworks done by a professional.”
Burlin and Larreau want people to stay safe as the holiday approaches. They remind people to place fireworks far away from any onlookers, and if it doesn’t do what it’s supposed to: “Don’t go towards it.”
Burlin recently placed in front of the house three signs from South County Fire reminding neighbors about the firework bans. She hopes that Chance’s story can help others.
“If a story can help one person to not light a firework this year,” Burlin said, “great.”
Hannah Sheil: firstname.lastname@example.org