Halloween warning: 'I had no fingers on my left hand because of a firework'
As Halloween approaches, children and adults are looking forward to donning scary get-ups and frightening the wits out of each other. Outings to firework displays and sparklers are all considered part of the excitement, especially for children.
But there is a dangerous side to all the Halloween celebrations as one Coalisland woman Natasha McCausland (24) knows all too well. In 1999, when she was just eight years old and out playing one day, she suffered a horrific injury that resulted in the loss of four fingers.
Natasha and her brother, Nathan, had ventured into the garden of a neighbouring block of flats where a Halloween party had recently taken place.
Natasha picked up an unattended firework rocket and tried to light the wrong end, while holding it in her left hand.
Sixteen years later, she still shudders as she recalls the terrifying incident: "All I remember is the rocket going off and running into our house.
"After that, the next thing that I can recall is waking up in the hospital."
The rocket had exploded, taking all four fingers of Natasha's left hand with it. She also suffered burns to her left leg and her brother suffered burns on his leg at the same time. Two of the fingers were recovered from the garden where the accident occurred, but were too badly burned to be reattached.
Now as a stay-at-home mum-of-one to son Keelin (4), Natasha freely admits that she has always struggled to cope with her injury - and in many ways is still trying to come to terms with it.
"It was very difficult to wake up and discover that I had no fingers left on my left hand," she says.
"In fact, it's still something that I have problems with.
"And of course there are all sorts of everyday routine things that I find difficult to do without the full use of my left hand. It's just the simple things like tying laces, doing up buttons and zipping up jackets - most people just take doing those for granted but you need two hands to do them and I don't have that any more.
"I was given a prosthetic, but it itches and rubs at the bones of my hand, so I don't wear it."
Perhaps understandably the passage of time, along with becoming a mother and just having to find a way to get things done, have both proved helpful.
Natasha explains: "As I get older, I'm becoming more comfortable with myself. I'm a very determined person, so I try not to let it get me down or get the better of me - I recently passed my test to drive a manual car."
Now, Natasha wants to ensuring no-one else suffers a life-changing injury. She appeared in a firework safety advertisement, produced by the Fire Service of Northern Ireland, in a bid to get the message out.
She is the first to admit that it's not always easy discussing her injury: "I get questions from the children when I take my son, Keelin, to school. I don't want to talk about what happened to me, but I feel I have to tell kids that this is what happens when you play with fireworks."
And Natasha freely admits that she still struggles with the psychological impact of the incident: "I'm frightened of fireworks now and I've always tried to avoid them, but now that I have Keelin, I try not to let the fear show as much. I won't let him go near fireworks, though.
"The only advice I have to give to people now is this; if you don't treat fireworks with respect then you are going to get burnt."
'It broke my jaw and my cheekbone, it's a miracle I didn't lose my sight'
While Natasha was a child when she was badly hurt by a firework, accidents can happen to anyone - no matter what age.
In 2003, Fermanagh farmer Leslie Andrews also sustained a severe injury from an exploding firework that left him unable to physically open his mouth for seven years.
Ironically, he had always taken care with fireworks.
"We would have fireworks at the farm every year. I thought I was being careful with them but on one occasion I used a cigarette lighter to light a firework. I thought that it had not ignited but it had done so - and it exploded in my face," explains the 60-year-old father of four.
"I was knocked out by the blast - my brother ran up the field to find me choking on blood. He turned me over and called an ambulance," he recalls.
"The firework broke my jaw, my cheekbone and blew a hole in my cheek. It's a miracle I didn't lose the sight in both of my eyes as the burning phosphorous from the firework blew all over my face.
"I spent the first two weeks in hospital having the phosphorus cleaned off before they could actually operate. I was in pain, but they gave me morphine. I think the worst pain was suffered by my family at home, who were worried about me."
For Leslie, it has been a very long road to recovery and one that has required many operations to repair his damaged face. He has also had to travel to England for specialist treatment.
"I went there for plastic surgery and when that it had all healed, it turned out that my jaw bone had fused, so I could hardly open my mouth," he explains.
"The widest I could open it was to push a small biscuit through and that would scrape my teeth. I used to have to cut up my food and push it in with a teaspoon."
Seven years after the accident, Leslie was given respite by a surgeon at the Queen Victoria Hospital in London, who performed an operation aimed at restoring his jaw function.
"He took cartilage from my ear and one of my ribs to repair my jaw," explains Leslie.
"I went to London on a Tuesday, had the surgery on the Wednesday and by Thursday was eating properly with a knife and fork. It undoubtedly changed my life."
As with Natasha, Leslie is passionate about driving home the message about firework safety.
"If you have to deal with fireworks then be very, very careful," he says.
"Stick to the Firework Code and light them with a taper. Better yet, stay away from fireworks altogether and go and watch an organised display."
What the law says about fireworks
Fireworks are controlled by legislation in Northern Ireland and anyone wanting to put on a display at their home - other than indoor fireworks or sparklers - must obtain a licence, costing from £30, from the Department of Justice.
- You must not possess, buy or use fireworks (except indoor fireworks and sparklers) unless you have a fireworks licence issued by the Department of Justice for Northern Ireland
- You must show your licence to the retailer when you buy your fireworks
- All sparkler packets must display the following words: "Warning: not to be given to children under five years of age"
- The fireworks packaging must be written in English
- Fireworks must not be thrown or let off in a street or public place (other than a properly licensed public display)
- Category F1 (indoor) fireworks must not be sold to children under 16 years of age
- Category F2 (garden) and Category F3 (display) fireworks must not be sold to people under 18 years of age
- It is illegal for fireworks to be sold from premises not licensed/registered by the Department of Justice (retailers are required to display their certificates of registration at the point of sale)
- It is illegal to sell fireworks at markets and car boot sales, and from vans, including ice-cream vans
- You should never buy or use fireworks which do not have the European standard CE marking printed on the box
- The general public must not buy or use Category F4 (professional use only) fireworks
Take heed of the firework code ...
- Keep fireworks in a sealed box or tin
- Use them one at a time and replace the lid as soon as one is removed from the box
- Never put fireworks in your pocket
- Read instructions carefully using a torch or hand lamp - never use a naked flame
- Light fireworks at arms length using a taper or firework lighter.
- Stand well back and never return to a firework after it's been lit as it could explode in your face
- Always supervise children around fireworks
- Never throw fireworks
- Keep all pets and animals indoors
- Take care of sparklers - wear gloves to hold them and put spent sparklers in a bucket of water as soon as they are finished
- Don't set off noisy fireworks at night and never after 11pm
- For more information on firework safety, go to the Northern Ireland Fire Service website, www.nifrs.org