Fire official ensures bombs burst in air

Investigator's job is to look out for safety at Annapolis celebration

July 03, 2000|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

Douglas Remaley will stand tomorrow on a barge loaded with $50,000 worth of explosives - an arsenal of mortar shells sandbagged and racked together, each looking bigger and more lethal than the next.

They have deceptively sweet-sounding names, such as the glittering palms and the white twinkling chrysanthemums.

But they're filled with enough flash powder to destroy anyone and anything within firing distance.

If the barge's makeshift trench meets Remaley's standards, he will give the OK for shelling to begin over Annapolis harbor - a display better known as the Fourth of July fireworks.

While the crowds search for parking and lawn-chair spots near the City Dock, Remaley spends those pre-dusk hours making sure that he can say with as much certainty as possible that there won't also be a shelling of the spectators.

"We have to feel it's safe, or there is no shoot," says Remaley, a fire investigator for a decade for the city of Annapolis and one of two on the Fire Department roster.

It is not a coincidence that he is a bomb expert, because, in a real sense, fireworks are regulated explosives.

"It is the same principle," he says.

The barge - lined with upright plastic cannons - looks like part of a low-budget revolution.

But the setup is carefully staged and highly regulated, Remaley says.

The list of explosives that will be used has been approved by the state fire marshal's office and both the pyrotechnic company and "shooter" in charge of discharging the shells are licensed, he says.

He and his fellow inspector will also check the wiring that synchronizes each blast from the barge, paying special attention to the sandbags and wood frames securing each shell in an upright position to make sure that one doesn't fall over during the shooting.

An 840-foot perimeter will also be established, prohibiting the boats that crowd Spa Creek from getting too close to the barge. "The danger is the fallout," Remaley says. "The debris could easily catch one of those boats on fire."

Explosives are, by nature, unpredictable, Remaley notes - recalling the 1994 fireworks show where a shell malfunctioned and blew up on the barge instead of rocketing upward, even though everything had passed muster.

It was 10 minutes into the show, and the surprise explosion seriously injured one worker, who was flown to Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center with burns and broken ribs, and hospitalized another with a dislocated shoulder, says Remaley, who investigated the accident.

The show went on, however. "It was safer to have them finish than to investigate tubes live with fireworks," Remaley says. But mishaps at big public shows are rare, particularly with the use of electrical ignitions instead of flares.

"It's all electrical now," Remaley says. "You used to have to light it with your back turned and then get away from it as fast as you could before it went off."

By the time the fireworks begin tomorrow night, Remaley says, he'll be back on the dock watching each chemical blast and plume of sulfur - worrying more about amateur imitations than about professional displays.

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