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Fireworks spark concern in Bayside during holiday

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Sharon Waltke was sound asleep Sunday morning at 4 a.m. when several loud bangs and a bright light gave her a rude awakening.

"We thought it was gunshots," said Waltke, who lives on 215th Place between 39th and 40th avenues in Bayside. "My grandson woke up screaming."

But it was not gunfire that woke up Waltke and several of her neighbors in the middle of the night the week before Independence Day. It was fireworks, as she saw the following morning when she found a box of fireworks casings in the municipal parking lot on 41st Avenue and a spray of shredded red paper right outside Engine Co. 306 across the street.

"It's been a problem every year," said Waltke, a 35-year Bayside resident.

"If they're doing this now in the parking lot, what are they going to do on the Fourth and will there be a police presence?" she asked. "I'm worried about kids getting hurt."

Officer Anthony Lombardi of the 111th Precinct reiterated the pledge made to Bayside civic leaders last month by the precinct commander, Capt. Julio Ordonez, in which he promised that police would crack down on people setting off illegal fireworks during Fourth of July celebrations.

"There's going to definitely be officers on patrol just targeting fireworks," Lombardi said. "If we catch people with them, they are either going to get summonsed or they're going to be arrested."

Lombardi said specially designated patrols in the 111th Police Precinct would begin Thursday the day before July 4 - and would visit parks and schoolyards, the usual places where fireworks are set off.

The officer identified Alley Pond and O'Connor parks as being favorite places for sparks to fly, although he acknowledged that it could happen anywhere. The 111th Precinct covers Bayside, Little Neck, Douglaston, Oakland Gardens and part of Auburndale.

Fire Department spokesman Jim Long said all fireworks, including sparklers, are illegal except when they are used by licensed and trained professionals at FDNY-supervised events such as the Shea Stadium and East River shows that were scheduled for Wednesday.

Fireworks are illegal both because of the fire hazard they bring and the injuries to eyes and hands that often result from their use, Long said.

Under a crackdown begun by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, seizures of illegal fireworks totaled about 1,200 last year, down from a high in 1997 of 27,000, Long said.

Reversing a 1997 ban by Giuliani, Mayor Michael Bloomberg permitted firecrackers to be set off by pyrotechnics professionals at this year's Lunar New Year parade in Flushing. The firecrackers are intended to ward off evil during the holiday, according to tradition.

Frank Skala, president of the East Bayside Homeowners Association, has lobbied the 111th Precinct to correct what he believes has been less than adequate fireworks enforcement.

"This is something that can kill somebody," said Skala, who nonetheless acknowledged the difficulty in investigating Sunday's fireworks explosion after the fact.

Lombardi agreed, saying "after it's been shot off, there's really not much you can do. As a police officer, you have to observe the person detonating the fireworks."

Anyone wishing to report the sale, delivery or storage of fireworks is advised to call 1-800-FIRE-TIPS, 311 or 911 in case of emergency.

Reach reporter Ayala Ben-Yehuda by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 146.

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