When Rasaan Urquhart hit the ground on Super Bowl Sunday, he knew he was in trouble.
A rocket-style firework had hit his left eye, and “it felt like my face was blown off,” he said Monday.
The Eagles had just won the Super Bowl, and Urquhart, 25, was celebrating with his girlfriend, Alexis Williams, in the parking lot of Roosevelt Mall. A young woman was struggling to light a firework and Urquhart went over to help her.
Urquhart and Williams had watched her light a number of fireworks, and she was on her last one.
“We just kept flicking [the lighter], and it wouldn’t light,” Urquhart said. “And then, that last flick, boom. It just blew up and went into my face.”
Williams ran to get a police officer patrolling the lot, as onlookers recorded the scene and gave Urquhart paper towels. Once the officer saw the severity of the injury, he got Urquhart into his patrol car, and with lights flashing and siren blaring set off for Jefferson Frankford Hospital.
“Blood was everywhere,” Urquhart said, explaining that he later had to throw out everything he was wearing, including his sneakers. “That’s how much blood there was.”
Urquhart was later transferred to Thomas Jefferson University Hospital and then to Wills Eye Hospital for surgery. There he learned that though he still had his left eye, he would never see out of it again.
Philip Storey, a retina surgeon and clinical instructor at Wills, took Urquhart into surgery to repair the damage as much as he could. Once he saw how badly the eye was cut, he knew all he could do was close it to prevent infection.
“It was a very bad injury, it was a very involved surgery, and he’ll never see again the way he did before,” Storey said. “It really will affect his life forever, both him and his family.”
Experts like Storey say that Urquhart’s story is far too common.
Thanks to a change in Pennsylvania law, consumers can now purchase much larger fireworks than before. A year ago, Pennsylvania residents could buy sparklers and small fireworks that stayed on the ground even when lit. Now, they can get mortars, rockets, and firecrackers.
Storey is braced to treat injuries on Wednesday and Thursday.
“I love the Fourth of July because it’s a wonderful celebration, but I do always dread the injuries, particularly the ones that are lifelong,” Storey said. “Many of the injuries, even disfigurement of the face or loss of a finger or a hand, are obviously lifelong, and we really worry about [those]. And we know we’re going to see them.”
In order to stay safe on Wednesday, Storey urges everyone to leave fireworks to the professionals and keep a distance of 500 feet from where fireworks are being lit. For those who insist on lighting their own, stick to smaller items like sparklers and wear eye protection, preferably safety goggles, though even a pair of sunglasses is better than nothing.
In addition, no one should approach “dud” fireworks, or ones that don’t appear to be lit, before dousing them with water.
And, most important, parents should supervise their kids.
“I think parents in particular need to be cognizant that what they see as a fun event could cause their child to be blind forever,” Storey said.
The other most common celebration-related eye injury? Getting hit with a champagne cork. Easy fix: Cover the bottle with a towel before pulling out the cork.
“The tough part about fireworks is they’re fun, they’re beautiful, and what starts out as a moment of celebration can turn into something that fundamentally changes someone’s life,” Storey said.
Urquhart’s right eye wasn’t affected, so his life has not changed drastically. His daughters, Kalonni, 1, and Ramaya, 2, are too young to understand how serious the accident was. But his attitude toward fireworks is, not surprisingly, completely different.
“I was, at one point, that guy going to Walmart to go get [fireworks] just for the heck of it. But, from now on, I would not go buy fireworks,” Urquhart said.
Like his surgeon, he urges people to stick with professional displays.
“You never know what’s going to happen, such as malfunctions,” Urquhart said. “I was just helping somebody.”
Despite the grim prognosis, Urquhart still has faith that he’ll regain the use of his left eye. For now, he’s grateful to still have vision in his right eye.
“At the end of the day, the world keeps spinning,” Urquhart said. “I don’t let it hinder me, or stop me from doing anything. It’s just different.”