John Scholz watched as his 3-year-old son's T-shirt melted - the little boy's favorite cartoon character, Winnie the Pooh, oozing into bluish-orange flame.
The shirt, fortunately, was mounted on a hanger and ignited by a sparkler in seconds during a demonstration staged by the Anne Arundel County Fire Department.
Sparklers are the only legal fireworks in Maryland, but legal does not necessarily equate with safety when the traditional holiday pyrotechnic heats up to 1,500 degrees. A few seconds of carelessness is all it takes for someone to be seriously hurt, said Scholz, a battalion chief who is the department's spokesman.
In the 15-minute demonstration of the dangers of fireworks, everything that Anne Arundel fire officials warned can go wrong did.
One explosive that produces a fountain of sparks toppled midway and shot directly at spectators watching the exhibit at the county fire training complex. Another - a firecracker known as M-80 - rocketed straight up and then swerved toward a Fire Department propane tank.
Some of the devices sat for several seconds after fuses had burned, producing delayed detonations. "How do you know it's done?" Scholz said of the fireworks that seemed momentarily to be duds. "You don't. And once you start it, you can't stop it."
Many of the hand and eye injuries occur when people lean over to check whether an unexploded device is still lighted, he said.
Just as Scholz started to talk about the danger of starting a fire, a smoldering piece of fireworks debris fell into nearby trees. "The difference is that in a residential area, that would've fallen on someone's roof," Scholz said.
Another difference is that fire inspector Lt. Roy Phillips was wearing protective gear while lighting the fireworks - not clutching a beer in one hand and a plastic lighter in the other, Scholz said.
And unlike typical backyard fireworks, no children were around.
Fines for setting off fireworks range from $250 to $1,000, and county fire officials have confiscated several boxes of fireworks and illegal sparklers. (Only those with a gold label are legal in Maryland, the fire officials said.)
The fireworks have names like whistling busters, atom cannons, M-60s, and Big Bang packages - each marketed to sound more destructive than the next.
Fire Capt. Allan Graves offered a few examples of the dangers - like an incident during a New Year's celebration, when a father and son in Cape St. Claire threw fireworks out of their patio door toward the back yard. One exploded a little closer than expected - blowing debris into the son's eyes.
And fireworks caused two brush fires last summer, each started by children or teen-agers, Graves said.
State and local fire officials warn about fireworks every year, urging people to attend public fireworks displays instead.
In Anne Arundel, several are scheduled, including Sherwood Forest on Monday night, and Annapolis, Fort Meade, Gibson Island, Herrington Harbor and Galesville on the holiday.