Urgent safety warning from father who lost arm in fireworks injury

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INDIANAPOLIS (WTHR) - Travis Nowlin, 30, lost part of his arm last year while putting on a display for his family. Now, the father of five is sharing his story in hopes that other families will stay safe.

The pictures of Travis Nowlin's injuries are gruesome, but they show exactly what happens when an 1,800 degree firework, those stunners of the summer holiday, explodes right in your hand.

"My brain never ever even got to say 'release'," Nowlin recalled. "As soon as it sparked, it was just the most biggest explosion in my face you've ever seen. Everything instantly went dead quiet, like BEEEEP!"

The blast at a home in Decatur Township happened at dusk, during a family gathering on July 1, 2017. Travis, his wife and children were about to head home, when he decided to light one last mortar. He used a lighter while holding it in his hand.

The explosion was instant.

The subsequent 911 call, chilling.

NEIGHBOR: "We have someone that got their hand blown off by a firework. He was lighting it off and it exploded in his hand."

DISPATCH: "Ok. Alright. And is his hand still there? Or..."

NEIGHBOR: "Um...there's not much."

Decatur Township Firefighter/Paramedic James Halleck responded to the scene.

They knew right away it was bad.

"We were told through our computers that it was a firework emergency and that bystanders had placed multiple tourniquets on the patient," Halleck recalled.

He's seen a lot of fireworks injuries throughout his career.

This was the worst.

"It was extreme," Halleck said. "He was awake. He was conscious. He had some burns to his chest and he had a large amount of blood coming from his right wrist. The people that put the tourniquets on him, they were the ones that saved his life."

Those neighbors acted fast and stopped the bleeding.

But Travis lost much of his right arm.

"That's what it looked like when I looked down - completely gone," he said, showing us the nub that ends at his elbow.

He now has a metal prosthetic with a hook to use as a hand.

It's an all-too familiar consequence around the July 4th holiday.

Last year, according to the State Department of Health, there were 238 reported fireworks-related injuries in Indiana. Sixty-one percent of them were on private property and 77 percent were between July 1 - July 7.

Most people injured suffered burns. Nationally, according to the CPSC, eight people died and 12,900 were injured by fireworks in 2017. Those are the highest numbers since 2002.

That's why emergency crews preach safety for people who shoot off fireworks themselves.

"Distance is important," Halleck said. "Make sure you have some distance to protect yourself so that if something were to happen there, it's going to have to come a lot further to hurt you. Travis would have his arm if he'd had distance."

That was Travis' problem.

And he knows it.

"I was stupid. I did exactly what I should not have done. Bottom line. And that's where you're going to go wrong. You go buy fireworks, they're gonna be great. But if you're stupid, careless, that's just what's gonna happen," Travis said.

His pain from that day still lingers a year later.

"Like right now when I'm looking at you, guess what my hand feels like? It's clenching that firework since the day it happened," he explained.

But the accident also changed him. He says it's strengthened his faith in God, it's cemented his strong work ethic in the construction industry and he's spending more time with his five kids.

In losing his arm, Travis says he gained new perspective, especially when his son Matthew was born just days after the accident.

"This right here is a gift from God," Travis said, holding his youngest. "So really, I lost one hand but I gained a whole man."

He's also sharing that message of safety to prevent another tragedy during what should be a joyous holiday.

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