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Charges could be coming for operator of pyrotechnic device that sparked blaze at UVa frat house

A criminal charge could be coming for the person who was at the helm of a pyrotechnic machine blamed for a late-winter, party-clearing fire at a University of Virginia fraternity house.

The ignition of mounds of foam peanuts near what’s called a “cold spark machine” in the ground-floor party room of the Kappa Sigma house emptied the Rugby Road building and caused three people to get evaluated for smoke inhalation.

“There was too much stuff around those machines,” Shawn Maddux, Albemarle County deputy fire marshal, told the Daily Progress.

There’s been a trend at fraternities to create a “Winter Wonderland” effect with foam peanuts, which are light and white like snow. But unlike snow, the polystyrene packing materials are flammable.

On the night of the fire, March 17, witnesses said that a Chapel Hill-based musical act called Always Friday had been slated to perform.

Neither the act’s management nor the fraternity responded to requests for comment from The Daily Progress.

Maddux said that the building’s sprinkler system activated to tamp down the flames and that none of the three people complaining of smoke inhalation were transported for medical treatment.

Concert pyrotechnics were once associated with classic rock bands such as Kiss. It was pyrotechnics backing another hair metal band called Great White that started the Rhode Island nightclub fire that killed 100 people in 2003.

Today, cold spark machines, also known as sprinkler fountains, may seem a safer alternative than conventional fireworks, but they still generate heat.

“It’s not really hot to the touch, if you put your hand near the top where the sparks are,” said Maddux, “but the base gets very warm.”

He said the base of at least one machine in the Kappa Sigma house was proximate to the piles of polystyrene.

“It’s all about excess,” said Maddux. “We calculated the amount of peanuts, and it was the equivalent of filling four average bedrooms floor to ceiling.”

While Maddux said a contributing factor was the cushy carpet of combustibles, the pending criminal charge would be the failure to obtain a permit for pyrotechnics. Many party rental firms claim that cold spark machines are not pyrotechnics.

“That was one of the assertions made by some of the brothers there that night,” said Maddux. “But legally they very much are.”

If the charge does get levied, it is a Class 1 misdemeanor, which is punishable by up to a year behind bars. But since it’s not a felony, the person who is the target of the investigation would not be subject to extradition.

“We’ll talk to him and see if he’ll return to Charlottesville and do the right thing,” said Maddux. “We’re not going to go to North Carolina and pick him up.”

Legal analyst David Heilberg said that states don’t typically extradite over misdemeanors, but with easily searchable databases, the charge won’t disappear.

“If it’s out on the wire that there’s a warrant out for your arrest, you could get arrested,” said Heilberg. “A speeding ticket could land you in jail.”

Heilberg, a frequent criminal defense attorney, said that sometimes an out-of-state misdemeanor charge can be handled with a fine and without actually going to court. But that, he said, doesn’t mean a charge should be avoided.

“I always tell people to face the music,” said Heilberg.


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