Presently I live in Chicago in a fifth-floor apartment facing Lake Michigan—about half a block away. On the 4th of July—ten days ago, after darkness set in a bit past nine o’clock, a hoard of inebriated amateur pyromaniacs began flaunting their arsenals of consumer-class fireworks.
As usual, their displays demonstrated a dearth of individuality: impotent mortars launching one-inch shells to an altitude of forty to fifty feet above ground level; meager roman candles shooting tiny fireballs forty feet, and strings of little firecrackers sounding like a succession of toy pistol caps being popped. The “big show” was ignition of single M-80 firecrackers which I imagine most everyone knows, make a deep, resonating boom. Whereas the first boom may induce an involuntary flinch in the unindoctrinated, further booms induce emotions ranging from irritation, to disgust, to pity. This saga continues until the proverbial witching hour of midnight. It never changes. It is always uninspiring.
Re-witnessing this tragic comedy reminded me of earlier times when I experienced what I consider “macho” fireworks displays. I’m not speaking of prissy nostalgic fireworks, nor of new spectacularly beautiful fireworks—after six decades I’ve had my fill of those. No, I’m talking about the type of fireworks that make observers stand at attention—as during the countdown of a rocket launch. Unique, experimental, intriguing presentations which by no means necessarily work as planned. Displays which are suspenseful, memorable, and unforgettable. Herein I describe three different Independence Day macho fireworks celebrations which I observed.
Two decades ago, I visited a neighborhood with a one-block-square, flat, grass-covered field surrounded by large deciduous trees. In the evening on Independence Day the field was ringed by several hundred people who resided in the area, and their invited friends such as I, who gathered to watch fireworks.
Most presentations involved conventional consumer-class fireworks, acquired from “fireworks-friendly” States, which were about fifty percent stronger than munitions typically displayed along Lake Michigan’s shoreline. Participants fired fireworks from the corners of the field toward the center, and from the center of the field toward the sky, thereby rendering a relatively safe and pleasing visual experience.
However, I vividly recall two memorable unique presentations.
I recall the first presentation as “Mushroom Cloud.” I watched as a “wafer-cake” consisting of 2,000 firecrackers was assembled in the center of the field. Forming a rectangle, the bottom layer of the cake was 400 crackers arranged in four rows of 100 each. Fuses of crackers in successive rows overlapped each other. Five such assemblies were stacked upon each other. All crackers were configured to ignite simultaneously. When this firework was initiated it created a mushroom cloud approximately forty feet in diameter, which boiled upwards for a hundred feet before dissipating. I don’t recall if this presentation created a massive noise—the mushroom cloud stole the show.
I recall the second presentation as “Gatling Roman Candle.” I saw another participant use a two-inch round wood dowel six feet long as the core of the firework. Equally spaced around the dowel, six consumer-class Roman candles were taped to each other. On top of the initial layer, nine more candles were taped to each other. A total of four layers of candles, 32 in all, were taped to the dowel. Fuses of all candles were connected to a single master fuse. The base of the dowel was placed in a foot-deep hole dug in the field, and secured by tamping earth into the hole. The master fuse was lit and when all the candles began firing it seemed a volcano was erupting into the sky, illuminating the field, trees, and people like a strobe light.
San Diego Gaffe
In 2012 I lived in Point Loma, San Diego. My apartment was two blocks from America’s Cup Harbor. It was the 5th of July, and the most stupendous-ever Independence Day fireworks display was planned by the city. Three barges triangulated San Diego Bay, each with an identical assortment of commercial fireworks. The order in which munitions would be fired was identical, controlled by computers and unfolding at the identical time on each barge. The show was designed to last a total of fifteen minutes.
An hour before dark I walked to the end of the H&M sportfishing pier, which offered an ideal view of San Diego Bay and all three fireworks barges. I sat at the very end of the pier, guaranteeing me a fantastic uninterruptable location from which to observe the show.
Five minutes before the show was scheduled to start, a computer error accidentally initiated every single firework on all three barges. Fifteen minutes of fireworks were shrunk to fifteen seconds. This resulted in a blazing fireball which made it impossible for any of the munitions to reach altitude—all fireworks were combusted close to the barge. The noise was stupefying, and the light was dazzling.
I realized there was an enigmatic computer error, and I hoped nobody was killed in the mishap. I began walking back to my apartment. The crowd on the pier and docks failed to realize the show was over.
Here is a YouTube video of this show: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zrNu3mOYySg
Here is another (starts at 3:17): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xmu4B5HPJkw
PGI Annual Fireworks Show
Pyrotechnic Guild International, or PGI (https://www.pgi.org/), is the name of a professional pyrotechnic organization dedicated to the development and safe operation of fireworks. Every year PGI holds a national convention in a fireworks-friendly State, and on the last day a world-class fireworks show is presented. I was fortunate to attend a PGI fireworks show held in West Fargo, North Dakota. Below I describe three of the most memorable displays which I recall from that event.
One memorable event was the launch of a 24” mortar ball. Typical big-city firework shows use 4” mortar balls with an internal volume of 33.5 cubic inches. A 24” mortar ball has an internal volume of 7,238.2 cubic inches, or 216.1 times greater than that of a 4” ball. For safety, the ball was set to initiate when it reached 3,000 feet above ground level: it was launched from a 12-foot steel mortar tube and it saturated the sky when initiated.
Another memorable event, the finale, was the firing of a hundred 6” titanium salute mortar balls in one minute. When titanium salutes initiate they make a tiny flash in the sky and produce a tremendous booming report. The 6” balls are 3.4 times more powerful than the 4” balls typically used in city celebrations. The resulting racket was earth-shaking.
However, the most memorable pyrotechnic event which I ever witnessed was the initiation of two-million class 1.3G display firecrackers, which are much more powerful than consumer-class crackers. The strands of crackers were woven into a four-foot diameter, 120-foot-long “rope.” The middle of the rope was suspended forty feet in the air by a crane. Beneath the center of the rope was a railroad car filled with a flammable gas. Both ends of the rope were ignited. After a half-million crackers had burned there was a great deal of paper floating in the air. A high-velocity pump expelled flammable gas and a fireball instantly formed which I estimated was 200 feet in diameter. This sped ignition of the remaining 1.5 million crackers as the rest of the gas was discharged. I guessed the second fireball was two to three times larger than the first fireball. As with the Neighborhood Park Mushroom Cloud event, I don’t recall acoustic aspects of the event—other than it was extremely loud, however I clearly recall the brilliant light of the burning gas and incinerating cracker casings.
The events I described were unique in my experience, and remain vividly memorable. However, for the fireworks connoisseur, the world’s best presentations are the life’s work of one man, Cai Guo-Qiang: https://www.sciencealert.com/watch-this-mind-blowing-firework-ladder-stretches-all-the-way-to-the-sky
Rather than purchasing expensive, possibly dangerous, and potentially illegal-to-operate consumer-class fireworks, I recommend that people wishing to see a professional fireworks celebration take a trip to observe PGI and other world-class experts demonstrate the limits of state-of-the-art pyrotechnic technology.
Fire in the hole!
Paul R. Yarnold, Ph.D.
July 14, 2021