We're fired up for fireworks
- Bright bursts, big booms have thrilled us for centuries -- with no sign of fizzling
By Janice Crompton
Even before Francis Scott Key penned the poem that became "The Star-Spangled Banner," Americans had a love affair with fireworks. Mr. Key wrote as he watched the "rockets' red glare" during the War of 1812. But it was John Adams, the fledgling nation's first vice president and second president, who predicted that America's Independence Day would be celebrated by future generations as a "great anniversary festival." After signing the Declaration of Independence, Mr. Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail, on July 3, 1776: "It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews [an archaic spelling of shows], Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more." And so it is. Fireworks, however, aren't just for the Fourth anymore. Sporting events, community days and other holidays are just some of the events now regularly celebrated with fireworks. And, Americans' appetite for the flashy displays continues to grow, according to the American Pyrotechnics Association, which says the nation shot off more than 213.2 pounds of pyrotechnics in 2008, up from 152.2 million pounds in 2000. Some scientists believe our obsession with fire and explosions can be traced to early man, who depended on fire for cooking, heating and even for camaraderie. "I think it goes back 100,000 years to our ancestors and fire," said chemist and pyrotechnics expert John Conkling of Washington College in Chestertown, Md. "It's the bright lights and intense noise. There's something in the human soul that gets triggered when that happens."
Fire, he believes, stimulates primitive contacts in our brains. "People are fascinated by it," said Dr. Conkling, who was featured as a fireworks expert on the Public Broadcasting Service television show "NOVA." According to widely accepted legend, fireworks were invented by a Chinese chef 2,000 years ago, when he accidentally mixed explosive ingredients together in a bamboo shoot. Today, displays of fireworks are colorful, choreographed spectacles with digitized music played in time with the peaks and valleys of bursting aerial shells. Shells come in a variety of shapes and sizes for different effects, noises and colors. They consist of black powder, fuses, charges and stars that are hand-wrapped in paper. Nowadays, shows are computerized, with software that sets off fuses and timers. Still, a 15-minute show can take as long as 40 hours to design and choreograph, said Doug Taylor, president and CEO of Zambelli Fireworks Internationale, based in New Castle. "You're talking two to three hours of design work for every minute of the show," he said. Children can try designing fireworks at an interactive exhibit currently at the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh. Youngsters can choreograph their own show by choosing from several types of fireworks, colors and backgrounds. They can then watch the show they created on a monitor. Zambelli is one of the sponsors for the exhibit. Billed as "the first family of fireworks," Zambelli has produced pyrotechnics since 1893, when Italian immigrant Antonio Zambelli came to the United States to start his own company. "He brought the tradition of shooting fireworks in Italy with him," Mr. Taylor said. Today, fourth-generation Zambellis run the company, which produces more than 3,500 shows worldwide every year, many in the Pittsburgh area. The shows can cost from $2,500 for private parties, such as a wedding, to the million-dollar annual "Thunder over Louisville" show to celebrate the Kentucky Derby. Surprisingly, "our biggest shows aren't the Fourth of July shows," Mr. Taylor said. The company produces hundreds of fireworks shows for sporting events, including for the Steelers, Pirates and Washington Wild Things.
Display at the Point
As might be expected, this week is the busiest of the fireworks season, when Zambelli produces 600 shows all over the U.S., including its traditional show at the Point in Pittsburgh, scheduled for 9:35 p.m. Sunday. The company has satellite offices all over the country and its headquarters occupies 200 well-guarded acres on a hillside in New Castle, where 70 outbuildings are loaded with magazines and protected by razor-wire fencing. To avoid the possibility of a spark igniting all of those explosives, the buildings contain no outlets, furnace or air-conditioning. They are lit with special light bulbs that are shatter- and spark-proof, and static-resistant paint covers the floors. Unlike 25 years ago, the company no longer manufactures all of its shells. It purchases most of them from large producers in Italy, Spain and elsewhere. But Zambelli still churns out three main products because "we think we do them best," Mr. Taylor said. Those are waterfall-effect fireworks, usually used on bridges; star mines, which shoot mini stars that explode in the air; and lances, pencil-sized explosives used to form images and letters. Everything is made by hand because machines are too dangerous to use near black powder, the key ingredient in commercial fireworks. All of the company's technicians are licensed to handle fireworks, in accordance with rules that vary from state to state. The facility is licensed and overseen by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. In Pennsylvania, operators of commercial fireworks displays need only be approved by individual municipalities, most of which follow guidelines established by the National Fire Protection Association. The state, however, places stringent requirements on sales of fireworks to consumers, limiting purchases by Pennsylvania residents to sparklers and novelties containing a small amount of black powder. These are the items seen at this time of year at roadside tents and some stores, which do not need a state license to sell them. To obtain more explosive fireworks, Pennsylvania residents must buy them from a licensed facility and have a permit from their town. The disparity among state regulations regarding fireworks irritates some, who question why Americans can use firearms but not fireworks.
It's the tragic stories, such as that of 3-year-old Michael Shannon, that have persuaded many to forgo backyard displays in favor of professional shows. Michael, of Raleigh, N.C., was standing between his father's legs when he was struck in the head by an errant firecracker. It came at him sideways after its wooden base turned over during a backyard fireworks display at a family reunion on July 4, 1991. He died early the next morning at a hospital. Though the type of firecracker that killed Michael eventually was outlawed, similar accidents aren't unusual and occur even with professional operations. Last July 4, five employees in the fireworks industry died in fireworks accidents. David Walker, 19, of Pulaski, Lawrence County, was working for Zambelli in Eastern Pennsylvania when a shell exploded on the ground and he was killed. Four employees of another fireworks company were killed in the Outer Banks of North Carolina when fireworks they were unloading exploded. In November, nine people were injured at Etna's Light-Up Night celebration when part of a Zambelli ground-effects fireworks display tipped over, shooting fireworks sideways toward a crowd of onlookers. The injuries might have been worse, but for a company safety policy that requires a 100-foot safety zone for every inch of a shell's diameter. Most shells range in diameter from about 3 inches to 8 inches, meaning a safety zone of 800 feet would be required for shows that use 8-inch shells. National Fire Protection Association code requires a 70-foot safety zone for every inch of shell diameter. Such regulations exist because fireworks are dangerous. More fires occur on Independence Day than on any other day of the year, and more than half of those are caused by fireworks. Fireworks started an estimated 22,500 fires in 2008, the latest year for which figures are available from the fire protection association. Those fires resulted in one death, 40 injuries and $42 million in direct property damage, according to the association. Hospital emergency room doctors around the country treated 7,000 people -- mostly youngsters -- in 2008 for fireworks-related injuries. Christopher DeLuca, chairman of emergency medicine at St. Clair Hospital, said most of the fireworks injuries he has seen in his emergency room involve first- and second-degree burns from sparklers and exploding fireworks. Sparklers burn at 1,200 degrees, which is hotter than melting glass. That makes them dangerous, Dr. DeLuca said. He recommends that only those older than age 7 be permitted to use sparklers and only with a bucket of water or a hose nearby to dispose of sparklers. Fireworks also can be a bad idea for pets, said Bob Mihalovich, a veterinarian in Washington, Pa. He has had to prescribe anti-anxiety medication, such as Valium, to dogs who fear the loud noise. Some dog owners come into his office at this time of year to get medications for their pets, he said. If a dog owner is unsure about whether a dog will fear fireworks, the owner should observe the animal's reaction to thunderstorms, Dr. Mihalovich advised. Since the 1991 fireworks accident in North Carolina that killed the Shannon boy, his family has been on a crusade to convince parents that backyard fireworks aren't as safe as many may think. "We assume that because you can buy it in the United States, that it's safe, but it's not," said the boy's father, Jack Shannon. The family has produced an online video about fireworks safety in the hope that it will encourage families to celebrate the Fourth of July safely. "We have met a large number of people who say they no longer have fireworks because of Michael's story," Mr. Shannon said. "We couldn't let his death be in vain. That's why we tell his story."
The Shannon family's video can be viewed at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C2Pfil_2a3I
Fireworks safety tips
Of the 50 U.S. states, 45 -- and Pennsylvania, with strict stipulations, is one of them -- and the District of Columbia allow legal consumer fireworks for the Fourth of July. Here are some safety tips for handling fireworks:
-- Store fireworks in a cool, dry place.
-- Always read and follow the directions on the label.
-- Always have an adult present when handling fireworks.
-- Never give fireworks, even sparklers, to young children.
-- Use fireworks outdoors in a safe, nonwooded area.
-- Have a working garden hose or bucket of water nearby.
-- Keep everyone, including spectators, a safe distance away from fireworks.
-- Keep pets indoors and away from fireworks.
-- Always wear safety glasses when igniting fireworks.
-- Light only one firework at a time.
-- Never re-ignite a firework that didn't light the first time or that has finished its display.
-- Never carry fireworks in your pocket.
-- Never throw fireworks at another person.
-- Never shoot fireworks in metal or glass containers.
Source: American Pyrotechnics Association, http://www.americanpyro.com