History, Mystery, and Mayhem in Conneaut, Ohio: The Fireworks Factory Fiasco

October 1989, The Fireworks Factory Fiasco

Tuesday morning, October 24, 1989, began as an ordinary warm fall morning in Conneaut, Ohio. In fact, the weatherman predicted a beautiful day, high in the mid-seventies except cooler near Lake Erie. Compared to Conneaut’s approximately 13, 500 residents, the world population numbered approximately 5.24 billion people. George H.W. Bush occupied the White House as president while Lewis Shiley served as Conneaut Mayor, Darrell Thomas Police Chief, and Bim Orrenamaa Fire Chief.

On this morning Conneaut citizens went about their daily activities, visiting, working, and shopping at Conneaut businesses like Ron’s Meat Market directly across from 909 Main Street. At another white house, located at 909 Main Street, this one, a two-story white colonial style house with an adjoining garage, Donald A. “Danny Rossie, age 57, owner of the King’s Tavern, began his day. He had made plans with his family to celebrate his birthday that evening, but on his birthday morning, he worked in his garage to make another batch of illegal fireworks, gathering the necessary ingredients, mixing the chemicals for the fireworks, and packing them into their cardboard cartridges.

The chemicals that Danny Rossi combined proved to be disastrous for him as well as the City of Conneaut. To create his fireworks, he blended M-80s and M-500s. The United States military originally manufactured M-80s as fireworks. The M stood for Military equipment and the 80inches for the eighty grains of flash powder inside the small cardboard tube containing the flash powder. The small cardboard tube, often red measured about one ½ inches long and 3/18 of an inch diameter inside, with a fuse emerging from the side, a fuse generically known as a cannon fuse. These tubes commonly held about three grams of pyrotechnic flash power.

The M-500s featured a larger sized cardboard tube, more flash powder, and a larger fuse, but neither version contained nitroglycerin as dynamite does. They had less explosive power than dynamite, but enough power to ignite the over five hundred pounds of fireworks that the mixture produced with terrible destructive force, creating three major explosions that shook the surrounding area.

The first explosion, occurred at 11:40 a.m. the second at 12:08 p.m. and the third at 12:20 p.m. The explosions produced a massive fireball that disintegrated Danny Rossi’s house and garage. The fire spread to the house of his Cummins Avenue neighbor, sixty-one-year-old June Riddle, fed by the approximately five hundred pounds of fireworks that he had stored in his garage and basement. The blast killed Danny Rossi and June Riddle who had just gotten out of her car and gone into her house.

Firemen fight the fire caused by the explosions at the Donald Rossi house.

The explosions injured eleven people, including Danny’s wife, Georgeana,. Transported to Hamot Medical Center in Erie Pennsylvania, Georgeana was listed in fair condition with a broken right arm. The other ten, including Danny Rossi’s stepdaughter Tammy Schultz and her husband Lee Schultz, were treated at Brown Memorial Hospital and released.

More than seventy homes and buildings sustained millions of dollars of damage. Shock waves broke countless Conneaut windows a mile away and West Springfield, Pennsylvania, ten miles away, felt the force of the explosions.

Federal investigators determined that Danny Rossi had been operating a small to medium sized, illegal fireworks manufacturing factory in his garage and storing them in the garage and in the house. According to investigators from the United States Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the layers of chemical deposits in the garage floor drain revealed that the fireworks manufacturing operation had been going on for “quite some time.” Danny Rossi made the fireworks and his partners handled sales and storage.

Altogether, The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms implicated five people. Danny Rossi’s stepdaughter Tammy Schultz and her husband Lee, and three men from Michigan, Pennsylvania, and New York. All five were eventually indicted on conspiracy charges, the three out of state men, charged with providing storage space and the ingredients to make fireworks. After a lengthy trial in Akron’s federal court in May 1991, they were found guilty and each sentenced to over a year in federal prison. Tammy and Lee Schultz were found not guilty.

The Conneaut News Herald, the Ashtabula Star Beacon, and regional and even national newspapers reported the story of Danny Rossi’s fireworks factory. Conneaut residents described their eyewitness experiences that were indelibly etched on their minds and memories.

Lloyd Marcy: “It’s not supposed to happen in America”

Conneaut Fire Station No. 1 firefighter Lloyd Marcy rode on the first fire truck to the scene. His first impression? “It’s not supposed to happen in America.”

As he squirted water on the Rossi house, another explosion “rolled me across the yard like a rag doll.” He said that as the firefighters arrived, people across the street shouted that Mrs. Riddle had just went into her house. Lloyd Marcy crawled through her house looking for her and later her body was found in the basement.

Conneaut Police Sergeant Randy Poore: “Something bigger than a gas explosion”

Sgt. Randy Poore on his job just a little more than a year, was at home when he heard a noise that sounded like “something was coming through my window.” He went right to the police station and then to the scene of the blast.

He said, “I thought it was a gas explosion. But when we started gathering evidence (among the debris), I knew it was something bigger than a gas explosion.”

Sergeant Poore helped place the little flags next to evidence found in and around the blast scene. Yellow flags marked physical evidence and red flags indicated “biological” evidence (body parts), he said.

Sergeant Poore noticed something else. “There were so many green leaves on the ground. They had been blown off the branches by the explosions.”

He recalled a city-wide spirit of cooperation in the days following the explosion, so much so that even the routine nuisance calls to police waned for a time. According to Sergeant Poore all of the Conneaut sent food to the scene for the workers.

It changed our lives drastically”

Ron Ross has operated Ron’s Meats food and beverage store on Main Street, directly across from 909 Main St for three years. According to Ron, the force of the explosion raised up the roof and then set it down again. He said the events of October 24, 1989, drastically changed his life and so did a fortunate twist of fate that he cannot explain.

Ron changed the position of the cash register in his door to a spot away from the door and front window. He said that he was not going to move the register until Christmas, but on the Sunday before the explosion he impulsively moved it closer to the meat case. His daughter and granddaughter were standing at the register when the explosion sent flying glass into his store. “If I had not moved it, my daughter and granddaughter could have been killed or cut up bad. I am thankful things worked out as they did,” he said.

“All four wheels were off the ground”

Conneaut Police Officer Terry Moisio Sr., while enjoying his vacation, drove past 909 Main St., at 11:40 a.m. “Suddenly my truck went into the air,” he said. “All four wheels were off the ground. I was hanging onto the steering wheel. It scared the hell out of me.”

Officer Moisio pulled into Ron’s Meat parking lot. He saw debris falling on his truck, he thought from the second explosion. He said he tried to stop cars and help with traffic control, all of the time not knowing what had happened.

Later, Tony Moisio worked for the Conneaut Municipal Court, but he often recalled that day as a Conneaut police officer dealing with a horrible tragedy. “Every time I drive by and see that empty lot I think of it,” he said.

“It looked like a war zone”

At the moment the firework’s explosion tossed his father’s truck into the air, his son Terry Moisio Jr., at the time a Conneaut police detective, was sitting inside the police station. He remembered that it was a warm fall day and he had just gotten back from vacation. Suddenly, all of the phone lines lit up and he thought the phone system had malfunctioned.

Recalling the day from his new position in the Ashtabula County Sheriff’s Office detective bureau, he said that the first caller terrified him when the person reported that the nearby West Main Elementary School had blown up. He later discovered that none of the children or adults in the school were injured and had been evacuated to a high school stadium to wait for their parents to take them home.

Detective Terry Moisio Jr. and Detective Steve Gerics were the lead investigators on the case. Detective Moisio Jr. compared the scene as a war zone with a steady rain of unfilled M-80 cartridges. Cars were flipped over like building blocks and Danny Rossi’s Cadillac rested in the kitchen of June Riddle’s house. Personal effects, including pages from a Bible to cash were recovered blocks away.

Although he spent many years in law enforcement, Detective Moisio Jr. considered the Rossi case one of the biggest in his career, “because of what was eventually involved. He and his partner put in 80-hour weeks, coordinating with other agencies.

“Hey, look at the size of that mushroom cloud”

Conneaut Fire Station 1 Capt. John Chapin and a colleague were on their way to lunch when the ground shook and they spotted a sparkling silver plume rise to the sky west of the downtown firehouse. “Somebody shouted, ‘Hey look at the size of that mushroom cloud.’”

They came back into the fire station and took their places on the firetruck before they were dispatched, so quickly that they were the first fire truck to arrive at the scene of the explosion. Captain Chapin said it was the worst call he had been on in his 44 years in the fire service. He saw multiple houses burning and no one knew how many people were killed or injured. “We had to take the truck down Cummins Avenue because the debris field was so large. It was a mess.”

He recalled that after the first explosion the Rossi house still was three-fourths standing, but after the second explosion it was just a pile of rubble. “I was trying to put out the Rossi house fire when the second explosion hit, then the third,” Captain Chapin said. “I got sulfur in my eyes and had to have it washed out.”

Later, Captain Chapin purchased the lot at 909 Main Street with the intention of someday building a home there.

“Her life was suddenly over”

Conneaut Mayor Lewis Shiley and his staff coordinated the community relief effort to deal with the tragedy. He praised the emergency forces as responding as well as anyone could imagine. He said the police and fire chiefs did a remarkable job, and the county and federal people did their jobs well too. “the city took some hits, but the people came back strong,” he said.

According to Mayor Shiley, “the saddest part of the day was the death of Mrs. Riddle. Her life was suddenly over.”

June and Robert Riddle

Thursday October 26, 1989

Conneaut News Herald

June L. Riddle, 61, of 175 Cummins Avenue, died Tuesday at her home from injuries received in an explosion that occurred in the house next door.

Mrs. Riddle was born in Franklin, Pa. a daughter of Frank and Myra Witherup Schiffer. She was a Conneaut resident for the past 37 years.

Mrs. Riddle was an active member of the First United Methodist church, where she served as treasurer of United Methodist Woman, the secretary of the Council on Ministries and was a member of the Bell Choir, the Senior Choir and the Elder Guild. She also served in numerous other capacities at the church.

She was also an accomplished pianist and was a member of the former McDowell Music Club for many years.

Mrs. Riddle was a graduate of Franklin High School class of 1945, and graduated magna cum laude from Hiram College in 1979 with a degree in humanities.

She is survived by two daughters, Joan L. Adams of Conneaut and Janet L. Puffer of Houston, Texas; a son Robert F. Riddle of Conneaut; a brother Richard Schiffer of Franklin, Pa. and two grandchildren.

In addition to her parents, Mrs. Riddle was preceded I death by her husband, Dr. Robert A. Riddle on September 25, 1986.

A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. Saturday at the First United Methodist Church with the Rev. Merien C. Levering, pastor, officiating.

Calling hours will follow the service in the church parlor. Graveside services will be held in East Conneaut Cemetery at the convenience of the family.

Memorial contributions may be made in her name to the Church Memorial fund. Envelopes will be available at the church or at Thompson Funeral Home, 345 Main Street, which is handling the arrangements.

Donald “Danny” Rossi

Donald A. “Danny” Rossi

Birth:  24 Oct. 1932

Death:  24 Oct. 1989

Burial:  Greenlawn Memory Garden

N. Kingsville, Ashtabula County, Ohio U.S.A.

SN U.S. Navy Korea

Ashtabula Star Beacon

Area Marks Grim Anniversary, Ashtabula Star Beacon, October 24, 2019

“Conneaut, Ohio – Thirty years ago today, a series of explosions rocked the city.

By all accounts, it was a pleasant fall morning, until 11:40 a.m., when the house at 909 Main Street exploded. The man living in the home, Donald Rossi, was making illegal fireworks in the house and something went wrong.

Rossi was killed in the explosion along with his neighbor, June Riddle, 61.

Rossi’s home was destroyed, and seventy buildings and residences in the area were damaged.

Terry Moisio was a detective with the Conneaut Police Department at the time. “It’s still fresh in my mind,” Moisio said.

There were three successive explosions on Oct. 24, 1989. The first was at 11:40 a.m., followed by a second at 12:08 p.m. and a third at 12:20 p.m., according to reports from the event.

“M-80s were raining down on our heads, M-80 casings. But we knew that day what we were potentially dealing with,” Moisio said.

The explosion was felt ten miles away, in West Springfield, Pennsylvania.

“It looked like someone had dropped a bomb,” Moisio said.

More than twenty-five people were involved in the investigation efforts after the explosion, Moisio said. The ATF handled the analysis, Moisio said.

Emergency departments from North Kingsville, Jefferson and the Sheriff’s Department were involved in the investigation while area fire departments and businesses helped with recovery efforts, according to reports.

Rossi’s fireworks operation was making between $300,000 and $500,000 per year, according to estimates from Charles Wallace, a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agent that was part of the investigation. Five hundred pounds of high explosives were found on the scene, Wallace said.

“This was not a ma and pa operation,” ATF agent John Kingsolver said in the wake of the explosion.

A trial was held for six people associated with the explosion. Only two of those were tried, Tammy and Lee Schultz of Conneaut. Tammy Schultz was Rossi’s stepdaughter. The Schultzs were accused of helping Rossi make fireworks, and the prosecution alleged that they were in the basement of Rossi’s house at the time of the explosion. The Schultzs were found not guilty.

In the wake of the explosion, 10,000 pounds of high explosives were found in a self-storage locker in Millcreek Township, Pennsylvania. Investigators were led to the locker by Louis DiPlacido, a former associate of Rossi’s, who agreed to cooperate with law enforcement in exchange for immunity, according to DiPlacido’s testimony during the trial.

In the storage locker were M-80s, M-100s and the chemicals needed to make them, DiPlacido said during the trial.

The explosion did an estimated $3 million in damage to houses, the prosecution said during the trial.

Amerigo Argentieri, Edward Vandermark and James Williams were found guilty. Williams and Argenteri, appealed their sentences, claiming that the judge wrongly exceeded the maximum sentencing guidelines.

The appeal was denied, according to court records.

Moisio was aboard the ATF plane that took photos of the scene from the air.

“The best way to describe it is the west side of Conneaut, from like Cummins Avenue west was like a war zone,” Moisio said.

“There was debris and evidence spread for miles,” Moisio said.

The site of Rossi’s house is still vacant.”