[Inside the Memories]25 years later, memories of Scottown fireworks explosion are still fresh

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  SCOTTOWN, Ohio — As many in the area were preparing to celebrate the Fourth of July weekend 25 years ago, the celebratory nature of the holiday took a drastic turn on this day in 1996.

  The inside of the Ohio River Fireworks store caught fire, killing nine and injuring 11 of the more than 40 people in the store at the time. The blaze was started by Todd M. Hall, who threw a lighted cigarette onto a shelf of fireworks, supposedly as a prank that some say was encouraged by three other young people.

  Afterward, many people questioned why such a tragedy had happened, why some made it out and others couldn’t, and others so in shock they couldn’t process the severity of what had happened.

  Even more than two decades later, the sights and sounds of the Independence Day holiday bring back dreadful memories of that tragic night.

  Jason Wallace was two-and-a-half weeks from his 10th birthday. His mother, with him that day, made it out alive, but she was hospitalized with injuries. Her son wasn’t able to escape and was one of the nine who perished. His father, Johnnie Wallace, has a hard time even passing fireworks tents when they appear around this time each year.

  “We don’t celebrate the Fourth of July much. It’s just another day, really,” Wallace said.

  It wasn’t always that way. As Wallace explained it, Jason loved to attend the big local fireworks displays, but the memories from that night in 1996 are still too fresh to see them again.

  “We liked to, and he loved it, going to Camden Park and different places to see the big displays of fireworks. After that, now even when I drive by those tents that sell fireworks, it bothers me,” Wallace said.

  Jason’s sisters, ages 12 and 14 at the time, still are healing from the loss of their brother.

  But out of tragedy, Beth Wallace McNeary, now 37 years old, found her own purpose, as did her sister, Amie Wallace Crockett. She now is part-owner of Slack and Wallace Funeral Home in South Point, Ohio, and hopes to help families through the hardships that come with losing a loved one.

  “It was the hardest thing I’d been through, and I remember Mom couldn’t come to the funeral because she was still in the hospital. It was us and Dad, and he wasn’t able to go through it with my mom, and it was the worst time in our life,” Beth Wallace said. “I remember how I felt, seeing (my parents), how they felt, and felt compelled to help others going through the worst time in their lives.”

  Wallace now has three children of her own, and while they might be able to watch fireworks, they do not participate in lighting any for themselves, she said.

  “Let a professional handle the fireworks. It’s not anything to play around with,” Wallace said. “They are pretty and fun to set off and watch, but your life could change in an instant.”

  The victims of the fire were Ryan Aldridge, 24; Misti Cron, 21; Shelbi Cron, 3; Candy Lee, 31; Matt Sansom, 14; Floyd Tolliver, 34; Ona Tolliver, 8; Jason Wallace, 9; and Kathlene Wilks, 71.

  Todd Hall, who was found incompetent to stand trial in 1996, was charged with four counts of aggravated arson and nine counts of involuntary manslaughter. Hall suffered a traumatic brain injury in 1987 while skateboarding and part of his brain was removed. He died in March 2015.

  Investigative reports and witnesses say the teens, who at the time were 19, 19 and 16, were with Hall before he sparked the fire. J.B. Collier Jr., who was Lawrence County prosecuting attorney at the time, said he was convinced after a detailed investigation that the three did nothing wrong. He said Hall acted alone and none of the teens had advance knowledge of Hall’s plans.

  Ohio River Fireworks never reopened. The store has since been razed and an American Electric Co. substation was built at the site. David Pruitt, who owned the store, died in January 2003.

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