Having a Blast

Fireworks crew ready to spark July 4 celebration

Posted: Sunday, July 01, 2007

Gary Stambaugh's community service job is a blast. Lots of blasts, actually.

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When the clock strikes midnight and July 4 officially begins, Stambaugh will be among the volunteers at the controls of the city firework show, igniting one of the nation's earliest Independence Day celebrations.

"I know the people who do the show enjoy it just as much as the people who watch it, as you would expect," said Stambaugh, the man with the pyrotechnic operator's license for this year's show.

And there's no better vantage point than from the barge in Gastineau Channel where the fireworks are lit, said Mark O'Brien, one of the coordinators for the past 25 years.

"I think we have the best seat in the house," he said. "The shell goes off above you, and it's perfect. You look straight up and it's right there."

However, the payoff of watching the show comes after a lot of hard work. It takes hundreds of hours of preparations by more than two dozen volunteers to execute the show each year, O'Brien said.

"It's a lot of work, all by volunteers," he said. "Most people who do this are excited when it comes to shooting off the firework show, so the reward is a show to turn out as well as you expect or better."

Stambaugh begins ordering supplies for the $30,000 city-budgeted show months in advance from a wholesaler in Big Lake, always keeping an eye out for the latest and greatest.

The show is comprised of roughly 700 shells that range from two to 12 inches in diameter, he said.

"We always open with a 12-inch shell and we always close with a 12-inch shell," Stambaugh said. "They are very expensive, and we can usually have two of them."

Safe rides

Two downtown cab stations have been designated to offer free rides home from the fireworks show. The service will be in operation from midnight, when the show begins, until 3 a.m.

The stations are at the corner of Main Street and Egan Drive, and the corner of Ferry Way and Franklin Street. Cabs will take patrons on a first-come, first-served basis.

For other details about specific Independence Day events, see the special section in todays Empire.

Because they are confined to the relatively small space of the barge, the majority of the fireworks are generally 6-inch shells, he said.

The names of the shells are often as colorful as the fireworks themselves. Among the featured attractions this year: "Falling Grapes," "Flat Chrysanthemum with Red Octopus," and "Silver Bowtie with Purple Rings."

An established relationship with the top-notch wholesaler results in a better show for the spectators, Stambaugh said.

"We really end up with a premium shell, a higher grade shell, than the majority of places," he said.

That also means more bang for your buck, Stambaugh said.

"We can get a better show for a better price for it," he said. "And you can really tell by watching the shows. We have nothing to be embarrassed by here."

Longtime coordinator Ron Flint said the fireworks crew has been doing the job long enough to orchestrate a smooth show.

"As we get older, we don't delay," he said. "We start sooner, and we try to stay ahead of the game so we aren't rushing around at the last minute, so it doesn't take the fun out of it."

The setup of the show has also evolved over the years, Flint said. Each shell used to be lit by hand.

"We'd take a road flare and light the fuse and the shell goes off right next to you," he said. "That's pretty intimidating. It's a little more dangerous. It's a little more difficult to keeping the continuity of the show going."

The shells used to be fired from metal tubes arranged on the barge, but the crew switched to high-density plastic tubes after a close call a number of years back.

"The most memorable experience was when a 10-inch firework shell went off inside the tube," O'Brien said. "It had everybody hitting the deck to stay out of the way."

The explosion didn't stop the show, but it left a lasting impression of the importance of safety, he said.

"Now everything is fired electrically," Flint said. "It's a lot safer, which is not nearly as exciting for the crew, but that's a good thing. It's a lot safer."

Electric ignition also means a smoother show for the spectators, O'Brien said.

The crew also has to battle the occasional small fire, O'Brien said. There's plenty of firefighting equipment around just in case.

Like any other aspect of live show biz, pyrotechnics can cause pre-performance butterflies.

"There's pressure," O'Brien said. "There's only one 12 midnight, and you got to be ready to go."

But the work is worth it, Stambaugh said.

"I don't think there is a better way to give so much joy to so many people in a half-hour time," he said.

• Eric Morrison can be reached at 523-2269 or eric.morrison@juneauempire.com.

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