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For the week of September 6 through 12, 2000

Cannon firing injures Wagon Days participant

Express Staff Writer

This year’s Wagon Days parade was marred by a tragic accident.

Bill Johnston is loaded into a Ketchum ambulance following a cannon accident Saturday before the start of the Big Hitch Parade. Express photo by David M. Seelig.

A Richfield man who was part of a team operating a cannon fired to initiate the Big Hitch Parade on Saturday lost all the fingers of his right hand when the cannon’s black powder charge exploded prematurely.

Bill Johnston, 50, was tamping down the charge immediately following a firing of the cannon to mark the end of the shootout act on Ketchum’s Main Street. The cannon, a 15-year-old, spoke-wheeled replica of an antique weapon, was parked in the middle of Main Street in front of the Pioneer Saloon.

"There had to be something still burning in the barrel and that set it off," said Larry Deeds, commander of American Legion Post No. 1, which supplied the cannon and firing team.

Deeds said the cannon is normally loaded with one-third of a pound of powder, followed by white flour and a small amount of diesel fuel to create a smoke cloud.

"When the powder was put in, it ignited," Deeds said.

According to onlookers, Johnston was thrown several feet backward by the explosion, his face blackened and his hat blown high into the air. He fell to the ground where he lay conscious and bleeding profusely.

The crowd remained quiet and restrained, but Johnston was immediately tended to by a doctor and a nurse who stepped out from among the spectators.

The Ketchum dispatcher received a call about the accident at 12:42 p.m. Police Chief Cal Nevland said Johnston was picked up by a Ketchum ambulance and transported to Wood River Medical Center in Sun Valley within 10 minutes after the call. From there, he was life flighted to University Hospital in Salt Lake City, where he was placed in the hospital’s intensive care unit.

A hospital spokeswoman said yesterday that Johnston was out of the intensive care unit and in serious but stable condition. She said he had facial burns and blurred vision.

Wagon Days Committee coordinator Wendy Jaquet said in an interview yesterday that the committee has begun a fund to help pay Johnston’s medical bills. She said the committee will set up an account for that purpose at First Security Bank, but in the meantime anyone who wishes to make a donation can leave a check made out to "Wagon Days Committee-Bill Johnston" at the Ketchum City Hall.

Jaquet said doctors at University Hospital have told her they may be able to use two of Johnston’s toes to create two fingers on his right hand.

"When you’re talking about grafting, you’re talking about a significant amount of money," Jaquet said.

American Legion post Commander Deeds said Johnston’s accident was the first that had occurred in 25 years of the post’s involvement in ceremonial cannon firing.

"We’ll have to re-examine our procedures," Deeds said.

He said future cannon firings might include a wet swabbing of the barrel between shots.

The Big Hitch Parade was delayed about 15 minutes as a result of the accident, but went forward as planned.

Mountain Express reporter Dana Dugan, who witnessed the accident, said the mood among nearby spectators was hardly festive as the parade began. However, she said, "as soon as we walked around the corner, from Main Street to Sun Valley Road, the mood was changed, because people there didn’t even know what had happened."


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