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From the ashes

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From the ashes

By the time Aaron Mayfield made it to his home in rural Polk County on the evening of July 3, 2018, nothing was the same as when he left it.  

In his three hour drive from Oklahoma, where he was prepping for a Fourth of July fireworks display with his wife, Amber Mayfield, everything changed.

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Amber and Aaron Mayfield talk about their year of recovery at their retail business on Mo. 215 east of Pleasant Hope.

The site where he had spent 10 years building up his fireworks manufacturing business — AM Pyrotechnics — was reduced to a pile of twisted metal and ash.

The quiet countryside nestled in the county’s southeast corner was transformed into an epicenter of chaos as a multitude of firefighters fought back flames.

And an employee, Samantha Dean, was in a Springfield hospital after being airlifted from the scene. Seven days later, she died from the burns she suffered in the fire.

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Samantha Dean

Just over a year later, the wounds left behind from the explosion that shook Polk County and the area are starting to heal, thanks in large part to the resiliency of a community that’s become family.

Remembering Samantha

Tracy Livingston, Samantha’s mother, couldn’t fight back tears as she talked with the BH-FP just days after the year anniversary of her daughter’s death.

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Samantha Dean and Tanner play in water at Jordan Valley Park the day before she was injured in a fire at AM Pyrotechnics July 3, 2018.

“It is rough, but we’re doing the best we can,” she said.

There are many things she misses about Samantha, she said, including her smile and her eagerness to help others.

“She was so special — to the world itself, not just us,” she said. “In her job, she touched so many people.”

However, Livingston said she sees Samantha’s greatest qualities every day in her now 21-month-old grandson, Tanner.

“Her son represents everything she was,” she said through tears. “His smile, his laugh, his eagerness to want to learn. His smile is contagious, just like hers was.”

She said Tanner seems identical to Samantha when she was growing up, filling a gap left behind by her daughter’s absence.

“So many times I say, ‘Well, your mom did that,’” she said with a bittersweet laugh. 

With Tanner and his father, Dean’s fiancé, living with Livingston, she said the toddler keeps her going.

“He’s thriving, learning,” she said. “Very smart little guy. I’m so thankful I get to be in his life.”

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Tracy Livingston holds grandson Tanner while they pose for a family picture.

Livingston said it’s even more special to have Tanner in her home because Samantha struggled to have children. 

“Tanner is a miracle baby,” she added. 

Livingston said the family works hard to keep Samantha’s memory alive for the little boy.

“We talk about her. We have pictures of her,” she said. “Her son has a book with pictures of her.”

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Tanner blows bubbles while playing.

A year after they lost Samantha, Livingston said the family is taking time to honor her daughter, having family meals, spending time together shopping — one of Samantha’s favorite things to do — and releasing balloons.

And, through it all, relationships with family and friends — including Samantha’s AM Pyrotechnics family — have meant everything.

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Tanner and his grandma, Tracy Livingston, smile for the camera.

“As the year has gone by, a lot of people were afraid to ask me what’s going on,” she said. “I’ve been busy trying to keep everyone else sane, and last week, I really lost it. Having them check on me has kept me grounded.”

‘You’re devastated’

The Mayfields shared Livingston’s sentiment, saying the support of the community changed everything, even in the first few hours after the incident.

Separated from his business and employees by hundreds of miles, Mayfield said he first got word about what happened from his assistant, April, who had left the building not long before the explosion.

“Then, our phones were going nuts ringing,” he added. 

Knowing the show must go on, Amber Mayfield stayed behind in Oklahoma to complete the scheduled fireworks show, and Mayfield immediately jumped into action.

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Firefighters battle a fire at AM Pyrotechnics on July 3, 2018.

“I started heading that way,” Mayfield said. “I just got in the car and left.”

He said he spent his three hours on the road activating safety plans already in place and sifting through swirling rumors.

Mayfield was greeted by a swarm of activity when he arrived at AM, with over 90 firefighters and multiple law enforcement officers, state fire marshals and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agents on scene.

He said the emotions were overwhelming.

“You’re devastated,” Mayfield said. “You’ve got someone in the hospital. It’s traumatizing when you approach something you practically lived in and you built.”

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Firefighters battle a fire at AM Pyrotechnics on July 3, 2018.

He said he immediately found his father, Terry, who had been holding down the fort while others were away for shows, to get the full scope of what happened. 

In an instant and in the days following, Mayfield said the Pleasant Hope community stepped up to help.

“They brought tables, chairs, food to the ATF agents, set up a tent for them,” he said. “They gave us emotional support. People were calling us left and right, offering prayers.” 

“It’s like a family,” Amber Mayfield added.

And, Mayfield said support came from across the nation, with fellow fireworks manufacturers clearing out accounts for amounts owed on purchased products and sending money to help get AM Pyrotechnics back on its feet.

“The whole community — even across the entire United States, but especially here — have come together to help us get past that incident,” he said. “It affected a lot of people, a lot of families.”

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A huge smoke plume is visible for miles immediately following the explosion at AM Pyrotechnics.

Thanks to that support and a nearly empty warehouse, Mayfield said the AM team moved forward and completed all but three shows in the days after.

“We produced 30 or 40 shows the next day,” he said. “We didn’t drop a beat.”

But, just five days after the incident, the family was hit with more adversity when Mayfield’s father suffered a disabling stroke.

But, in the face of it all, Mayfield said the team kept pushing forward.

“There wasn’t time to process a lot of it,” he said. “That’s the quickest way to heal. You just have to keep going.” 

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Flames burn at the AM Pyrotechnic building July 3, 2018.

Lifelong passion

Mayfield says his passion for fireworks began when he was 5 years old.

“You used to be able to order packages from a little magazine,” he said. “I would order the $100 package and get it early, two months before the Fourth.”

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Amber and Aaron Mayfield stand with their sons by a new sign at the retail building on Mo. 215.

Mayfield said as the holiday approached, he would get out the fireworks nearly every day.

“I would choreograph how I’d want to shoot those as a little kid at 5 years old,” he said. “I would say my passion was instilled in me by God at a very young age.”

As he grew older, his love of fireworks didn’t wane.

By the late 1990s, Mayfield said he had “popped up a little tent in the parking lot of Laney’s store here in Pleasant Hope.”

Thanks to a connection with the Wind FM radio station, he was asked to put on his first professional display for the Ozark Mountain Ducks baseball team in Ozark.

“I said, ‘Yeah, sure I can do it,’” he said. “And I had no idea what I was doing, but I wasn’t about to let that opportunity pass. I knew I could figure it out.”

The next year, Mayfield said he expanded to do shows in Branson, Forsyth and Shell Knob.

In 2004, Mayfield said he had a breakthrough for his business, performing his first show at the Pyrotechnic Guild Convention in Fargo, North Dakota, and winning the convention’s most artistic display award.

“That’s when it blossomed into more,” he said. 

Relying on specialized inventory from China, Italy and Spain through the mid-2000s, Mayfield said his path changed course again when an explosion at fireworks factories in China in 2008 delayed shipments to the U.S.  

“That’s when we started manufacturing ourselves,” he said. “I didn’t ever want to become dependent on China again.”

That year, the Mayfields built their manufacturing facility on East 535th Road, north of Tin Town. By 2009, they were making their own fireworks.

Today, the business is made up of three areas — manufacturing, displays and retail.

AM Pyrotechnics has around 10 full-time, year-round employees for the manufacturing portion, which Mayfield said “does nothing but sell to the display company and other fireworks companies.”

He said the company’s fireworks have been featured in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade show, as well as at Sea World, Disneyland and at Angel Stadium of Anaheim where the Los Angeles Angels play baseball.

“And it’s the special stuff they sprinkle in,” he said. “They use ours for the biggest and best shows.”

The Mayfields’ staff for the display portion of the business is 10 times that of the manufacturing end.

Mayfield said there are “over 100 part-time shooters for the display company during the summer.”

While they are particularly busy around the Fourth of July holiday, Mayfield said the staff puts on one to three displays “every single weekend, starting from early April all the way through October.”

Just this year, the Mayfields also remodeled their retail store on Mo. 215 east of Pleasant Hope. The shop, which opens each year for a few weeks in July, got a fresh coat of paint and a new sign.

Moving ahead

But, one of the biggest tasks they faced after the explosion and fire was rebuilding the manufacturing facility. For a time, Mayfield said he wasn’t certain of AM’s future. 

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A pile of rubble lays where the AM Pyrotechnics building once stood.

“People started suffering and saying, ‘We need work,’” he said. “It was heartbreaking. They all came back to me, every single one, and said we’re here for you. We want to rebuild.”

Mayfield said he needed the support of everyone in that moment.

“We didn’t have enough insurance to pay for everything,” he said, adding a rented propane forklift lost in the fire cost $25,000 alone.

“When that insurance money ran out, everything was on us to finish,” he said. 

So, the community came together again to show its support.

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A pile of rubble lays where the AM Pyrotechnics building once stood.

Mayfield said his uncle, Randy Mayfield, built the new AM manufacturing site at cost.

“I bought the lumber, but he wouldn’t charge me labor,” he said. “We brought three employees back immediately and made them the construction crew.”

With the building complete, Mayfield got his staff together to work on AM’s policies and procedures before the team could start manufacturing fireworks again.

“All of that documentation burned,” he said. “Every computer we owned burned. I had taken our backup computer over there for repair.”

He said the employees spent months doing process hazard analysis and process safety management writing.

“We analyzed in detail every process,” Mayfield said.

Through it all, Mayfield said he’s learned no act of kindness goes unnoticed, which is a humbling experience. 

“Don’t underestimate the charity and kindness that comes back to you when you give it out to your community for decades,” he said. “Their reward’s in heaven. Storing up treasures.”

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A year later, a new building now stands at the AM Pyrotechnics site.

Zach Stoops, whose family Mayfield said again and again has been instrumental in AM Pyrotechnics’ recovery, said “through all of the tragedy, what’s come out is lifelong friendships.”

“The moral of this story is how resilient the human spirit is in the face of adversity,” he added. “What wonderful friendships come out of tragedy. We are truly blessed to have the Mayfields as family. That’s how I consider them at this point.”

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