Snohomish schools to pay $660,000 for cannon accident

SNOHOMISH — A Snohomish teenager who nearly lost a leg when a ceremonial cannon exploded during a football game in 2006 has reached a $660,000 settlement with the Snohomish School District.

The damages will be covered by the district’s insurance carrier, officials said.

“We just wanted a fair settlement for this young man and his family,” said Betty Robertson, assistant superintendent for the Snohomish School District. “It was a tragic accident and we felt terrible about it.”

Brett Karch, then a 15-year-old sophomore, was a member of the Snohomish High School’s Marine Junior ROTC, which had the responsibility of firing the cannon at football games. For more than 30 years, a blast from the small cannon marked the start of each home game and every Panther touchdown.

Karch pulled the trigger on Oct. 6, 2006, at a homecoming game. The cannon blew apart. Some pieces scattered more than 20 feet away and Karch’s left leg was shattered by flying shrapnel.

The school district dropped the cannon tradition after the accident and has no plan to bring it back.

Karch “suffered severe, disabling, disfiguring and permanent injuries and damages,” his attorneys said in court papers.

Now 18, Karch has had several surgeries, a skin graft, a titanium bar inserted into his leg and extensive physical therapy.

“His condition has improved but he still has ongoing limitations and some pain,” said Kevin Coluccio, a Seattle attorney who represented the teen. “He can’t do everything you would with a normal leg.”

“I think he is a determined young man who has worked very hard to recover,” Coluccio added.

Four other ROTC cadets sustained minor injuries but didn’t need hospital care. The cadets were responsible for measuring and filling nylon bags with 1.7 ounces of gunpowder and then stuffing two of the charges into the cannon’s barrel.

The Snohomish Police Department investigated why the cannon exploded and sought assistance from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

The cannon was sent to a lab for analysis, but police never got a written report.

Investigators were told the cannon, which was fabricated by an Everett company in the early 1970s, had metallurgical deficiencies and wasn’t up to the job, Snohomish Police Chief John Turner said.

“Our investigation concluded early on when we realized there wasn’t any crime involved,” Turner said.

The cannon explosion became the focus of controversy after a Seattle newspaper’s story in December 2006, suggesting Karch was being harassed by people who feared his injury would end decades of celebrating Snohomish football triumphs with a cannon blast.

The story spread on the Internet. Reports that people in Snohomish were tormenting an injured boy sparked outrage, including newspaper editorials and 400 e-mails to Snohomish city officials.

A Snohomish woman for a time faced a misdemeanor charge, accused of harassing Karch while he was hospitalized in Everett. Prosecutors later dismissed the case.

Documents obtained earlier by The Herald showed a neighborhood dispute, not irrational football spirit, appeared to be at the root of the harassment allegations.

School officials said they had the cannon professionally inspected a year before the explosion and that no problems were found.

In the lawsuit filed in October, Karch’s attorneys alleged the district failed to adequately monitor and maintain the cannon to ensure it was in safe condition. They also said Karch and his fellow JROTC team members followed “all appropriate rules, regulations and guidelines” in loading and operating the cannon.

“We believe it was entirely on the school district,” Coluccio said.

An attorney representing the school district didn’t dispute the assertion.

“The school district did take full responsibility for what happened,” said Eric Roy, a Bellingham lawyer. “The settlement amount does represent the school district accepting full responsibility.”

A full-day of mediation in January resulted in a signed settlement. An order dismissing the case was filed earlier this month.

“The kid made a nice recovery, which is fortunate,” Roy said.

Reporter Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446, e-mail stevick@heraldnet.com.

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