Fourth of July fireworks show takes five days of setup

Four technicians began arranging Monday's pyrotechnics on barges on Thursday

July 03, 2011|By Erik Maza, The Baltimore Sun

At 9:30 p.m. Monday, three digital clocks stationed on a couple of barges in the Inner Harbor will put into motion a fireworks show that will turn Baltimore's skies into a kaleidoscopic landscape of colors and shapes, from half-moons to jellyfish.

It will take just two seconds for one of the 1,400 fireworks to zoom 800 feet into the sky and explode. But what often seems like an all-too-brief show takes about 20 hours to design, and five days (and four technicians) to set up.

"Just one minute of the show takes an hour to design on the computer," said Victor Weinmann, lead technician for Pyrotecnico, the company handling the effects.

The city has scheduled a variety of events for Independence Day — a children's entertainer, a Grammy nominee, a couple of military bands — but the main draw, as always, is the 18-minute flourish of fireworks over the harbor, a tradition that is now at least 30 years old.

Some 40,000 people are expected to watch from the Inner Harbor, said Dionne McConkey, spokeswoman for the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts.

Setting up for this year's fireworks show started Thursday at a shipyard in Curtis Bay. There, four technicians started building hundreds of wooden racks to carry the black tubes that hold all the explosives.

These racks are then assembled into small pods atop the barges, and fireworks shells are lowered into the tubes, which are positioned at 15- to 20-degree angles to avoid overlapping with the others when they detonate. Each shell has to be arranged numerically because they're all programmed to go off in sequence.

It's arduous, meticulous work, Weinmann said.

By Sunday morning, technicians were just finishing up the larger of the barges, which will carry some 800 fireworks, and still had to set up a second, smaller barge.

On Monday, Weinmann and his three technicians will come back about 8 a.m. and test software pods for malfunctions. Their computers can tell them if any of the individual fuses have been installed improperly.

It's one of the precautions taken to make sure the show is seamless.

"It's explosives; a bunch of stuff can go wrong," Weinmann said.

Two technicians will be aboard the barges on Monday night "to make sure, if something happens, we can stop the show," said Weinmann, who added that he hasn't seen any technical problems in the four years he's been with the company.

After the barges are loaded, the fireworks and music show is entirely computerized. One of the barges will be docked about 200 feet off the Constellation in the Inner Harbor, and the other one will be anchored near the Domino Sugar factory. When those three digital clocks strike 9:30 p.m., the technicians have nothing to do but chaperone the explosives and watch the sky in awe.

Pyrotecnico is a national company that has also handled events like MTV's halftime show for the 2004 Super Bowl. In 2009, the company won the contract to produce Baltimore's New Year's Eve show, taking over from Zambelli Fireworks Internationale, which had done it for 30 years.

That show, with some 5,000 fireworks, was one of the biggest he's seen, Weinmann said. This one is low-key in comparison.

Throughout the day on Monday, the city has scheduled several children's shows, starting at noon at the Inner Harbor's West Shore Park with a magician and comic, and followed by the Grammy-nominated Baltimore children's band Milkshake at 1 p.m. and 3 p.m.

The Pennsylvania Air National Guard Band and the Electric Brigade, a U.S. Naval Academy band, will perform at the Inner Harbor amphitheater starting at 4 p.m. All events are free and open to the public.

The music that accompanies the fireworks show can be heard best at the Inner Harbor amphitheater and on the harbor's west shore.

The fireworks are visible in Canton and Fells Point, as well as the immediate Inner Harbor area, McConkey said.

In case of severe weather, the show will be moved to Tuesday at the same time. The National Weather Service is forecasting a mostly sunny Independence Day, with a high near 92 and a low of 74.

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