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Fireworks burn hole in family's finances

After a firecracker explodes in a Tampa teen's pocket, his mother has to stay home and care for him. But bills are piling up.

Published July 8, 2006

[Times photos: Daniel Wallace]
With help from his sister, Tamara Underwood, 19, Derrick Underwood, 16, tries to make a painful transition from the couch to the bathroom. Derrick suffered second- and third-degree burns, and doctors may have to perform skin grafts on his legs.
Norma Pierce, 38, holds the pair of pants her son was wearing when a firecracker exploded in them.

TAMPA - Norma Pierce can hardly sleep at night, worrying how she'll pay the $800 rent, praying her family won't lose the house.

She has stopped working at a local day care because her son needs her. He can't walk, can't even go to the bathroom without help.

She fears her family will go on food stamps, all because someone's firecracker exploded in her son's pants.

"They don't know the toll they put on my life," says Pierce, 38, looking at 16-year-old Derrick's bandaged leg.

Fireworks are supposed to delight with their bright colors and loud bangs. But the one that injured Derrick Darnell Underwood may be enough to push his family into desperate times.

On July 2, during a weekend of holiday revelry, Derrick stood amid a crowd at Central Park Village, a public housing complex near Ybor City.

It's unclear how the firecracker got into his pocket, but Derrick says he looked down at his leg and saw smoke coming from his pants.

Bright sparks jumped from the bottom of his jeans, he recalls. The explosion was powerful enough to blow a hole in his pocket. He ran to his sister Tynesia Clark's apartment on India Street and shouted for her to call 911, he says.

He stripped off the pants. By then, his skin had been scorched badly from the firecracker, and he was hospitalized with second- and third-degree burns over 10 percent of his body, said Tampa Fire Rescue officials.

He has been released from Tampa General Hospital, but the healing process has just begun, his leg swathed in thick bandages that stretch from his groin nearly to his ankle.

Derrick told fire crews that someone must have slipped the lit firecracker down his pants. The Fire Marshal's Office is investigating the incident, according to Assistant Fire Marshal Jeff Brown. Brown said it was illegal for anyone to be shooting off such fireworks in the city.

While investigators sort it out, Derrick's family is left to deal with his injury.

Derrick, a sophomore at Blake High School, is one of Pierce's six children. Two are grown and no longer living at home, but Pierce is still raising four kids, plus a niece and two grandchildren, she says.

One of those grandchildren is Derrick's 1-month-old son, Derrick Darnell Underwood Jr.

Since Derrick's release from the hospital, Pierce's insurance has helped pay for twice-weekly visits from a nurse, she says. But Derrick may need skin grafts to replace the skin missing from his burned leg, she says. The family is scheduled to meet with doctors this week.

The teen, who loves playing football with friends, spends his days lying on the couch, watching music videos and movies. Crutches sit by his side, and doctors told him it will be six months to a year before he can walk on his own, his mother says.

Derrick had hoped to get a job at a movie theater before school starts to make money to help out, but he can't do that now, he says.

The family recently rented the house, a white home with green trim on Columbus Drive in east Tampa, and it's spacious enough for everyone, Pierce says. There's little furniture, though, and they might have to move if medical bills keep piling up, especially with no money coming in, Pierce says.

As she talks, she turns away from her son, her eyes teary, her brow narrowed with worry.

Abbie VanSickle can be reached at 226-3373 or

[Last modified July 8, 2006, 01:22:34]

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