Brian Mullins, a successful Raleigh Wedding Photographer, understands how important ambiance is to clients. In his words, “Unless you shoot weddings exclusively in forests or gasoline factories, you’ve probably had the joy of photographing a ‘sparkler exit’ or two in your career.” They are pretty, make for great photos and, at least in his experience in the Raleigh/Durham, NC area, are very, very popular if the reception venues allow them. You probably already know that, yes, they are hot, but Brian recently learned exactly how hot and extremely dangerous they are while helping arrange guests for an exit during one of his shoots.
A word of warning, this story contains some VERY graphic descriptions and photos of what can happen when sparkler exits don’t go as planned. What follows is Brian’s story, by Mr. Mullins himself.
– – –
It was April of 2014, and wedding season was in full swing for us in Raleigh. With it being at the early part of our wedding season, I noticed I was a bit more fatigued then usual later in the evening, but it had also been a long day (about 11 hours) so I was glad when the last song was over and I walked down the stairs to help setup for the sparkler exit.
The venue staff was handing out sparklers to the guests and asking them to line up outside. Our usual process has always been to grab a handful of sparklers and pass them to guests that forgot to grab one, as well as a couple for myself so I could help light others sparklers further down the line. We want to make sure we get as many sparklers going as possible for the best photos and it just helps the entire process go faster. The sparklers were the shorter “fourth of July” types and not the longer wedding sparklers that are the “recommended” type for this use. I also found out they burned “blue” instead of the traditional yellow. I was thinking to myself this would look really cool and should match the color temperature of my flash better then the yellow. As it turns out that means the chemical composition is different and as I soon discovered, more “volatile” then traditional sparklers.
I lined everyone up into two lines outside when I got the signal the couple was ready to come out. People started lighting their sparklers and, to be honest, I don’t really remember what happened next. I know I had a bunch (9-10) of sparklers in my hands prior to that moment and one of two things happened, either I lit them or a guest lit them ( I was told two different things by two different people) but the end result was the same. An instantaneous searing, burning and overwhelming pain in my right hand, a large fireball that scorched my face & hair and a ton of confusion… it turns out the sparklers exploded in my hand. I remember throwing the sparklers as fast as possible but my hand didn’t quite work so they just kind of dropped. I took a look at my hand (this was outside, at night) and could see it was scorched black, misshapen and my skin felt very odd. Someone came over and started yelling at me to look at my hand while grabbing at it which added to the confusion (at the time). I don’t really remember the exact sequence of details because I was in intense pain and the couple had just appeared at the doorway, so my only thought process was only to “get the shot,” so I shrugged him away while uttering some form of grunt or other noise (that was most likely unpleasant). As the bride & groom started walking I lifted my camera and got ready to fire the first shot.
I tried pressing the shutter with my index finger and, for lack of a better way to say it, it didn’t work. I couldn’t bend my finger enough to actually depress the shutter. Thinking as fast as I could, I switched to my middle finger. No bueno. Ring finger? Hell no. C’mon pinky, you can do it! YES!! My pinky still worked so I shot around 30 frames, hammering away with no thought of composition, artistry, flash recycle time or anything other then trying to keep them somewhat in the frame.
The couple made it to the car and I couldn’t take it anymore (I missed the car shot). I RAN to the bathroom to put water on my hand. Looking at it inside in the light, it was worse then I thought. My hand was almost completely black, the skin was thickened and very hard and three of my fingers and thumb would barely move. I washed off as much soot as I could with the water then went back upstairs to get some ice, find my partner (Jenn), pack up and go to the hospital. I didn’t realize it at the time but I was in the early stages of shock at this point so I resembled the behavior of the walking dead. I told Jenn what happened, and she immediately got the DJ to help her pack up and we got to the car as fast as possible. We talked about which hospital to go to and agreed on the closest one to our studio.
So, one thing about emergency rooms. People tend to treat them as their primary care physicians so, when I arrived, people were waiting for non-emergent issues (fevers, flu, etc). I got triaged, told it was only first degree and they offered me some ibuprofen for the pain… (yeah, great service there). After about 45 minutes of waiting, without any movement in the line of people in front of us, Jenn convinced me to go to another hospital. As we were walking out, I went into full fledged shock. Started slurring my words, shivering uncontrollably and had difficulty walking. We arrived at the next hospital, told them what happened and they immediately got me into a wheelchair, gave me a warm blanket (oh my god that was the 2nd best feeling ever) and brought me back into a triage room. The resident came in shortly after, asked what happened, took one look at my hand and promptly left to get the attending physician. When she came in, she immediately started telling me I had received 2nd & 3rd degree burns to my hand, which burned the tendons and was the reason I couldn’t move my fingers (along with the thickening of the skin). They were not equipped to treat burns this serious and they had called an ambulance to take me to the UNC burn center. (ironically about 5 miles from where the wedding reception was). She told me that once I arrived there, they would most likely cut off my clothes, prep me for surgery and, if I was lucky, I’d retain about 50-70% mobility in my hand.
The next thing she told me was they were going to give me 1mg of Dilaudid (which is 10 times stronger then morphine) for the pain. Let me tell you, the relief from that pain was unbelievable and, by far, the best feeling ever. It turns out I also started hitting on everyone in the room. Whoops.
Jenn, being the kind, caring and most patient person ever, followed the ambulance to the burn center. By this time it was past 4am so between the drugs, pain and lack of sleep, I was a mess. Got checked into the burn center when the attending doctor came in (with his students), looked at my hand and gave me great news. With my job and my injuries, he decided cleaning, treatment and debriding of the hand and not surgery was the best option. However, what he did next almost cost him dearly. Without warning, he crushed my hand closed. Blisters started popping, one of them squirting me in the face. I almost punched him. Pain meds or not, that HURT! He explained he needed to make sure my tendons could still move and my hand could physically close if we weren’t going into surgery. Thanks doc.. a little warning next time.
The damage: half of my palm, the inside of my thumb, index and middle fingers had 2nd & third degree burns. My ring finger had a smaller 2nd degree burn as well. Large thick blisters had formed and my hand resembled something out of the Walking Dead.
The next two weeks sucked, completely. I had to wash my hand, dry it, coat it in silvadene cream, cut oil bandage strips to the wound size, wrap those around the burns, wrap that in stretch gauze, then put on this weird (but cool) stretchy “tube” gauze to hold it all in place. I had to do this twice a day for the 1st week because the burns were “seeping” and within 45 minutes of having a new dressing, it would start to yellow. On top of that, I had to do it with one hand so I felt like a battlefield medic every time I had to rip open packages with my teeth.
I went back for my appointment at the UNC burn center 2 weeks later and learned they would debride me (no, not firing a bride). This involves cutting away the dead flesh so the new flesh could start to breath and heal. I discovered a whole new level of anxiety when this very nice man took a very, very sharp pair of scissors and tweezers and started cutting holes in my wounds then peeling back the dead skin. Once he was done, I experienced a whole new range of “sensitivity” with the new, “beefy” flesh touching, well, ANYTHING. Who needed coffee in the morning, just breathe on my hand and I would be wide awake! The tissue looked like the beefiest juiciest red stewed tomato ever.
The healing process from there went quickly for me (I was told I had good genes). My occupational therapy routine ( stretching, gripping, etc) brought yet another new level of pain and, interestingly enough, it felt like it was burning all over again every time I did it. The doctor told me the harder I worked on that, the better chance I had in recovering full mobility of my hand so despite the sheer suck of the entire process, I did as much as I could stand. Not long after I was getting into a routine with the OT and my hand started showing small signs of improvement, one thing I never considered started creeping in… nightmares.
Oh boy, the nightmares! I am not sure which was worse.. experiencing the whole burning sensation 4 times a day when I was stretching my hand or waking up 10-15 times a night, gasping for air, because I just re-lived the actual burn. The only words I can think to describe that feeling is “this sucks”. I tried taking Zzzquil, drinking, pain meds and drinking and nothing would keep me asleep. That lasted for a good 3 months after the debridement & OT started. I honestly don’t know which was worse, the burn, the OT or the nightmares.
Of course, there is the small matter of actually working and holding a camera with a bum hand. In this regard, I was so lucky in a few ways. Jenn, my business partner and best friend, is a fantastic photographer and she took the shoots that we couldn’t reschedule. We also had a break for a couple of weeks so I didn’t have the immediate worry of having to shoot weddings. If Jenn hadn’t been there for me, it would of been difficult if not impossible to continue the business. She took lead on so many shoots and weddings because I just couldn’t handle the physical stress of holding a camera for 8 hours. Having a partner like that, who can step in for long term is not only invaluable, it changed how we operate as a business. My wife was a saint during this time. She helped me with the bandages, put up with the nightmares and the psychological crap that I was going thru personally. Without all of these people in my corner, I know I wouldn’t of come out as well as I have on the other end.
I’m about a year out now and only have the occasional nightmare, which just wakes me up then I go back to sleep pretty quickly. The hand is tight still if I don’t stretch it and i’ve injured my wrist 3 times from working out. Apparently the tendons all work together so while I did OT on my hand to recover the strength in that, the tendons in my wrist weakened and i’ve dislocated my wrist twice while working out on a punching bag. Other then that the scarring is minimal and the strength has fully returned. I cannot stress enough how LUCKY I am I don’t have permanent damage. The doctors told me this type of injury is common and I am one of the few that didn’t suffer permanent damage. I was lucky enough to have a burn center close to me that greatly aided in my recovery. This is how both Jenn and I feed our families so the potential “risk” of being helpful was far, far higher then I would ever knowingly accept.
I reached out to a popular wedding sparkler company regarding the differences between wedding sparklers and “colored sparklers” and “why” this happened. Libba from www.sparklersonline.com had the following to say:
My dad is in the fireworks business and sells almost 15 different varieties of sparklers – over the years I have tried them all. The colored ones are not my favorites because they are too short, are super smoky but most importantly burn like a torch instead of the pretty sparkle like traditional sparklers.
I do love the longer sparklers for weddings – the 20 inch and the 36 inch sparklers are ideal. The benefit of long sparklers is that each guest only needs one sparkler, needs to only light it once and that there is a very long handle to hold. Sparklers are such a beautiful and festive addition to weddings but must be used with good discretion.
So, what did I learn from this whole ordeal and how do we do things differently now? One simple saying (which Jenn coined) – “Not my job.” Sparklers are DANGEROUS! They burn at over 2000 degrees and will instantly burn flesh (I’m so glad these are marketed as kids toys) and as you can see, almost cost me my career. There are so many things we as photographers do to go above and beyond for our clients. The downside is we never really consider the outcome of some of those decisions.
Raleigh Wedding Photographer Brian Mullins has been shooting professionally since 2005 and won numerous awards including Independent Weekly, WPPI Accolade of Excellence and several other local organizations. His photography studio is based in Apex, NC where he focuses on both his wedding and commercial photography business. Brian and his business partner Jenn also teach multiple photography workshops for both amateur & professional photographers.