The Spark that Ignites the Big Bang

Rocket Science

by Mark Burns

For you and me, it's 20 minutes of high-impact thrills and colored stardust. But people like Dennis Coster work all year long or we Marylanders would have nary a sparkler.


Each Fourth of July, the skies glow with rockets' red, white, blue, green, gold, purple and orange glare in sparkling starbursts, weeping willows, whistling mortars, discus-shaped spreads and a few thundercrackers thrown in for dramatic effect. Pair such spectacle with a live or recorded soundtrack featuring the cannon-riddled "1812 Overture," mix in a throng of sparkler-toting, star-spangled celebrators and you've got yourself all the patriotic pyrotechnic fervor you can handle.

Only after the last rocket explodes and the smoke clears does the question come to mind: "How long is it going to take to get out of the parking lot?" Later, on the drive home, you think, "Who did that? And why can't I?"


photo at top courtesy of Zambelli Internationale Pyrotechnicians at Zambelli package aerial shells.


The Right Stufffireworks over monument
photo at right courtesy of Zambelli Internationale


You might wonder what makes a person want to handle a truckload of explosives in Chesapeake summer's oppressive heat. Worse, to want to be the one to light the fuses to an arsenal of volatile explosives, all for a show that's typically shorter than your average TV sitcom.

Despite what you might think, it's not pyromania. It's often fulfillment of childhood fantasy - an evolutionary step or two beyond launching model rockets.

"As a kid growing up, I was always fascinated by fireworks," says shooter Dennis Coster, owner and founder of Fireworks Productions Incorporated. Coster, of Baltimore County, has some 20 years' experience behind him as a shooter. He still lights fuses contentedly at some of his company's shows. "I don't know why," says Coster. "It's just something I like. It's fun."

Though Coster is a Marylander, strict state laws forbid his business to be of the same persuasion. Maryland isn't nearly so liberal as some states, such as Pennsylvania, about letting fireworks so much as spend the night within state lines. The threat of explosive damage is the reason why Maryland's only four fireworks manufacturers must stay to themselves in the northeast corner of the state in Cecil County and ship everything they make out to some other state. Because of all that, Coster runs his business from Glen Rock, Pennsylvania, just across Baltimore County's piece of the Mason-Dixon Line.

By Coster's estimate, Fireworks Productions is likely the biggest show shooter in Maryland. They shoot locally at Solomons, Rod 'n' Reel, Herrington Harbour and Galesville, plus a little further afield at Oregon Ridge State Park for Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's brief concert series. Even so, his operation, which shoots thousands of fireworks at "a couple hundred" shows each year, is small in comparison to the nation-spanning corporations.

Zambelli Internationale of New Castle, Pennsylvania, is one of those. Touting itself as the biggest and oldest American fireworks company, the family-owned plant spends over one million shells at 1,800 shows for the Fourth of July alone. Around Maryland this Fourth you can gawk at their handiwork in Baltimore, Bowie and Ocean City.



Just how many fireworks are used in a typical show is a stat that's hard to pinpoint. It's extremely variable, from hundreds for smallish gigs to thousands for the truly grand. The types used also vary, depending on the preferences of whoever's paying.

Chesapeake Beach's show, with its barrage of diverse shells sized two to six inches around, firing simultaneously from the harbor's twin jetties in synchronization with loud and lively music, promises to be grand. "We increased it by something like 28 percent over last year," says Gerald Donovan, Chesapeake Beach's mayor and Rod 'n' Reel's owner, of the sheer number of fireworks. "It should be spectacular. Man, it'll be the biggest one this town has ever had."

Enthusiastic customers such as Donovan are the reason why one anonymous industry insider teasingly called this "hell week" - a term coined for the biggest work rush of the year, the peak between the first and Fourth. Half or more of the entire year's workload is tackled in only four days, which taxes the magazine stockpiles pretty heavily.

Fireworks Productions draws off magazines stocked with fireworks made all over the U.S. and the world. The only assembly they do is combining pre-made components for special effects. Zambelli also imports from abroad, though it makes much use of its own. "We have over 400 acres in Pennsylvania for manufacturing fireworks," says Marcy Zambelli. "Our workers wear protective clothing, each of our magazines where a certain procedure is done are separate, all are made by hand and we use no machinery."

The vivid palette of airborne colors comes from tightly packed balls of metallic salts packed in with the gunpowder; different chemical combinations yield different colors and spark patterns when they burn.

With few exceptions to Maryland's laws against storing fireworks in-state overnight, explosives are trucked in the morning of the big night. Which means a whole lot of gas burned in supplying the Bowie Baysox, who shoot substantial shows 24 times a season - on the Thursdays and Saturdays of every homestand.

Depending on the show's size, set-up may take three to eight hours - even several days for big ones. Set-up begins with staking out a safe radius - 70 feet per each inch of the biggest fireworks mortar's shell size (Fireworks Productions prefers to make it 100 feet per inch) - propping up cannons in a wooden frame either on sand or a barge; loading the mortars and setting the fuses. And that's for a 20-minute show.

Coster reports that most shows are still set off the old-fashioned way with hand-lit fuses, though the shows go electric for complex computer-coordinated music synchronized displays.

The pyrotechnicians in control of it all are, like Coster, state-licensed shooters. To get licensed, shooters must first get experience via apprenticeships and finish off their training with a class sponsored by the Maryland State Fire Marshal's Office. After that, shooters are allowed to hire themselves out as contractors to the fireworks companies for individual shows. They are retested every year to keep their certification and skills fresh.

Click on above chart to display a larger version.



Does responsibility for both the well-being of the spectators and the spectacle's impressiveness make the shooters nervous?

"No, not really nervous, but always concerned," answers Coster. "You can never let yourself become complacent."

Still, he does confess to some anticipation. "Before every show the lead guy gets a little butterflies in the stomach," says Coster. "Once you get going, though, you're more composed and relaxed."

With each hiss of the spark climbing the fuse, each sizzle from the solid fuel of upwardly mobile mortars, each rain of color from bombs bursting in air, each 'oooh' and 'aahhh' from the gallery of onlookers, the shooter gets deeper into the groove until it's a cautious and joyful routine to assault the sky with a thunderous barrage of sparkling chemicals for a grand finale.

Unless, of course, the spark on the fuse strikes a dud. Or if it rains.

The only real defense against duds dampening the rhythm is to take good care of the fireworks and get them from a reputable dealer. When water falls? "We cover things with plastic," says Coster. Unfurl a tarp and hope for the best. Too much rain can ruin the display, for it soaks fuses and renders gunpowder impotent, as the Maryland State Fire Marshal's Bomb Squad so aptly demonstrated.


Don't Try This at Home
photos by Mark Burns Simple sparklers can burn at 1,800 degrees, and explosive fireworks can blow your hand apart.blown-up hand

With visions of sparks spinning 'round in their heads, it may seem a good idea to some show-goers to light a few fuses of their own. But, as State Fire Marshal Rocco Gabriele insists, it's illegal and not worth the risk.

The major difference between licensed shooters and the rest of us is that they are thoroughly trained and tested in fireworks safety to win and keep their certification. Plus, they're allowed to use the big stuff, whereas we are limited to gold-labeled sparklers, party poppers, snap 'n' pops and black snakes (except in Prince George's County, Montgomery County and Baltimore City where even these are illegal).

Everything else - such as bottle rockets, M-80s, jumping jacks and fireworks of any size - are downright illegal. If caught using or selling illegal fireworks, you can expect to cough up a $250 to $1,000 fine. If you're caught with certain big fireworks, which can be considered 'destructive devices,' you're eligible for 25 years in jail, a quarter-million dollar fine or both.

Worse still, you could put someone's eye out. Somber statistics ticked off by doctors pointed to 1997 when 8,300 people, mostly men ages 25 to 44, were injured by fireworks. Most injuries were to the hands and eyes, some causing irreparable damage.

To drive the point home, the State Fire Marshal Bomb Squad hosted the press at BWI to tell of the dangers and later illustrate them by applying M-80s to a plastic hand and a watermelon. They also put sparklers - which can reach 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit and deliver an instant third-degree burn - to a cotton T-shirt.

The hand blew up after three tries to light the wet fuse, the watermelon met a messy inverted Gallagher fate after two tries, and the T-shirt was riddled with ominous holes burned in the chest after sparklers made contact. The M-80s, equivalent to quarter sticks of dynamite, unleashed enough of an explosion that the shock could be felt from 210 feet and the boom could be heard over the din of occasional jet engines on the runways nearby.

These demos were done outdoors under steady drizzle, which sabotaged early efforts to blow stuff up and brought up another point made by Deputy State Fire Marshal Warren Gott. "This just goes to show how unpredictable these things really are," he said, noting that there is no standard for making fuses with consistent burn times to rely on.

A closer inspection of the victimized props showed the consequences of toying around with fickle fireworks: The hand was reduced to a hollowed-out, shredded stump of a wrist; the watermelon existed only as a million tiny bits of pulp, some of which was splattered on the tattered T. Noted one TV cameraman, "I guess that's what happens when they blow it up with a Patriot Missile."

| Issue 26 |

Volume VII Number 26
July 1-7, 1999
New Bay Times

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