Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Hearing the boom of fireworks from the banks of the Reflecting Pool sounds like being on “the wrong end of enemy artillery barrage,” retired Army Col. Tom Stiner said yesterday.

The retired officer will supervise the blastoff of 2,500 fireworks on the Mall tomorrow for the fifth year in a row with Pyro Shows, the company contracted by the federal government.

“I’m doing it just as a patriotic hobby,” he said. “I’ve been in fireworks all my life. I loved them as a child, then that was my career … my Army career was 29 years of fireworks.”

After serving two tours of duty in Vietnam and in the first Gulf War, he joined the company that is based out of his hometown of LaFollette, Tenn.

His seven-man crew has worked 12 hours a day since Thursday to unpack the shells and place them in fiberglass mortars.

Most of the crew will be stationed in a white trailer, nicknamed the “command bunker,” during the show to flip switches that trigger the release of the fireworks.

Only 200 feet from the fireworks, the crew members said they will brace themselves for the shock waves.

Matt Goins, 19, said he is looking forward to the detonations. He grew up surrounded by the fireworks culture of LaFollette, and last year became old enough to work in the fireworks industry with his father, Scott Goins, a Pyro Shows supervisor.

The fireworks are choreographed based on the patriotic soundtrack played over the loudspeakers. John Philip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever” will bring in the finale.

The newest fireworks this year will be colored cubes, which are among the first to be three dimensional. They will break about 600 feet in the air.

Mr. Goins said the biggest risk during the show is fireworks that detonate a few feet above the ground, but that the manufacturing side is more dangerous, because it is done by hand.

Eighty-five percent of the display fireworks in the United States are imported from China, said Greg Smith, safety-program manager for the American Pyrotechnics Association.

The Pyro Shows crew took a nine-day tour in October to major production cities in southern China to buy millions of dollars worth of fireworks, Col. Stiner said. The show tomorrow costs more than $100,000, but he would not specify exactly how much.

Ever since fireworks displays switched from manual to electric, and even computer detonation systems, the risk of burns has decreased significantly.

The federal government also has regulated the display-fireworks industry much more since September 11, 2001. The industry has shrunk by 50 percent over that period, according to the pyrotechnics association.

“There are many more restrictions toward security and safety than there ever were,” said Mr. Smith, who has been a pyrotechnician for 28 years.

Members of fireworks crews now are subject to federal background checks and drug and alcohol tests.

Twice as many federal and D.C. agencies are involved in the July 4th festivities on the Mall since September 11, Mr. Smith said, with the Secret Service coordinating with the Department of Homeland Security and the local fire and police departments.

“We’re a class 1 explosive,” he said. “Everybody tries to avoid the most populated areas, but since we entertain with fireworks, what do we do? We bring it right into the middle of everything.”

The time of greatest vulnerability for a fireworks crew is during transportation.

“When all of them are in one big van, it’s a target of consideration,” said Col. Stiner, 69. “There’s enough there to create an explosion that could cause enough damage that it would be an international incident.”

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