CHESTER - Authorities have filed misdemeanor charges against an area businessman whose fireworks stand went up in flames Saturday night in Chester.
Investigators with the West Virginia Office of the State Fire Marshal filed charges of unlawful sale, possession or use of fireworks in Hancock County Magistrate Court on Tuesday but were unable to serve the warrants, Hancock County Sheriff Mike White said.
"They were selling illegal fireworks," White said.
The suspect, Chip Kohser, owner of Kohser Farms, said he planned to turn himself in this morning.
"My understanding of the law is that I'm totally innocent," Kohser said.
Kohser is the license holder for the stand that caught fire Saturday night outside Shorty's Place Bar & Grill, at the top of the hill on U.S. Route 30.
Authorities believe the fire was caused by a short in an extension cord being used to run the lights in the stand, Kohser said. The fire sent fireworks shooting into the air in all directions shortly after 10 p.m. Saturday.
The fireworks, captured on several YouTube.com videos, ignited the white canopy over the stand and also destroyed siding and a window at Shorty's. No one was injured in the incident, although the resulting fireworks show stopped traffic on U.S. 30 for a time.
"I think it's a good thing we were operating out of a tent instead of a building because somebody could have died," Kohser said. "I can't imagine what the smoke would have been like if that had been a contained building."
Kohser said he talked to the employee who was operating the stand just minutes before on a cell phone. "I got there in time for the show. ... By the time I got to the top of the hill, everything was pretty much up in flames," he said. "You're talking about 30 seconds."
Kohser said the employee pushed a table over and was able to get away safely. He and some Shorty's Place patrons tried to put the fire out with fire extinguishers but to no avail. "We could have dumped a hundred fire extinguishers on it. The nature of those (fireworks) is that once they're lit, there's not much you can do," he said.
West Virginia law only allows the sale of novelty fireworks such as sparklers, poppers and smoke devices - nothing that gives a "loud report" or that goes airborne, White said. Some of the items that were being sold at the Chester stand - "Dinosaur Dancing," "Devil Dog" and "Train Rage" - are considered multi-shot aerial fireworks.
Kohser insists his sales were legal because the aerial fireworks were being sold only to out-of-state customers. "We would ask for a driver's license and make them sign a piece of paper attesting to the fact that they live out of state," he said. Kohser said he used to sell fireworks out of his former business, Stateline Feed & Country Store, which was practically across the street from Shorty's. Kohser closed the store in January, although he continues to operate Kohser Farms as a community-supported agriculture provider.
Kohser said he decided to open the fireworks stand because of his friendship with the owner of Shorty's. He hopes to make up some of his losses - estimated to be $50,000 - by opening another stand nearby once the mess from the fire is cleaned up, he said.
"We're only going to sell the stuff that's legal in West Virginia," he said. "By God, I'm using battery-operated lights this time."
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