Long before the ear-splitting cacophony of fireworks illuminates Buffalo’s skies, delighting thousands on Independence Day, area pyrotechnic crews will have worked quietly to ensure the spectacles go off with a bang – and without a hitch.
“I’m already booking for Fourth of July next year,” said Matt Shaw, owner of Skylighters of Western New York, which will coordinate 20 shows today, including ones hosted by the cities of Buffalo and Niagara Falls.
By the end of this week, the company’s busiest of the year, Skylighters’ 93 employees will have arranged 42 shows and launched tens of thousands of fireworks. For large-scale shows, preparation begins at 6 or 7 a.m., with crews allocating time to secure the perimeter and inspect individual firework shells.
At about 4 p.m. Wednesday, Shaw’s crew began assembling fireworks for a 10 p.m. show at Hamlin Park in East Aurora. The fireworks setup took place in a field just behind the stage where musicians performed, its perimeter fenced off from other park festivities. Shaw is required to have 210 feet in clear space in every direction from the launch site, he said.
Two-and-half to 3-inch shells the size of small coconuts were individually lowered into black plastic tubing that sits upright in rows of wooden frames. Wiring attached to the shell peeks out of the tubing, the fuse coming over the side.
During the show, each fuse is individually lighted by “shooters,” or those certified and designated to light the fireworks. Shooters are required to wear flame-retardant jackets, fire-proof ear and face protectors and hard hats, Shaw said.
The fireworks are grouped in sets of 20, with two shooters assigned to each line. The first shooter makes his way down the line, lighting the first fuse in each set. After the first shooter reaches the end of the line, the second shooter begins lighting the second fuse in each set.
Jerry Whitman, a shooter with Skylighters for 15 years, sat on a bucket as he fused together a string of fireworks in anticipation of Wednesday’s finale. Instead of individually lighting each firework, the finale fireworks are lighted on one end, setting off a chain effect.
“We are fusing it together because it’s a one light operation,” Whitman explained. “Just like a train going down a track.”
At the end of the track, a set of “salutes” goes off with quick, loud flashes and a bang.
“I’m always testing something, maybe it’s more for fun too,” Shaw said, breaking into a smile.
One of Shaw’s biggest weather concerns is wind. If the wind exceeds 30 mph, the show has to be canceled.
In downtown Buffalo, Bill Miller, an employee with New Castle, Pa.-based Zambelli’s Fireworks, began setting up in a Scott Street parking lot for a larger 25-minute show at Coca-Cola field Wednesday.
Instead of individually lighting each firework, the 4- to 5-inch shells were connected to an electric circuit and launched from 100 feet away. Each firework reaches an apex after about three seconds and explodes into the crowd-pleasing chrysanthemums and multi-colored peonies that have become synonymous with July Fourth.
If all goes accordingly, the shells disintegrate in the sky and nothing but paper bits should rain down, Miller said.
Like Miller, Shaw will likely be scrambling on today, assuring the shows go smoothly. The payoff, for him, lies in watching the audience react to the lighted skies. “To hear the crowd go crazy, no matter what’s going on in the world, it seems like nothing else matters,” Shaw said.