Fireworks crew puts in the hours

Boom time

Posted: Sunday, July 03, 2005

On a barge in the middle of Gastineau Channel is a small forest of chest-high tubes arranged and angled toward downtown Juneau for tonight's fireworks show.

This is where a crew will start its 16-hour day, loading the 800 tubes with powder shells and meticulously checking wires so the show goes off with a bang at midnight.

"Sometimes it's 11 o'clock and we'll have a problem with a whole section," said Gary Stambaugh, one of the 15 volunteers expected on the barge today.

It's a combination of arts and sciences to pull off this 20-minute show that some fireworks experts have said is the best in the state.

Stambaugh compared his work to composing a symphony and stacking dominos at the same time. No doubt it's a complex evening with the timing involved and the conducting of combinations of explosions in the air without letting the barge burst into flames.

A tarp covers the hot, sweaty area around the tubes, shielding the fireworks from rain until the very "last, last second" before the show starts, Stambaugh said.

The crew has been working for several days to wire the fuses to a switchboard that, with the help of a 24-volt battery, ignites the fireworks electronically.

This technique is actually cutting-edge for fireworks shows, as cities including Anchorage still light fuses by hand and flare, Stambaugh said.

This year's show will have more fireworks, thanks to a purchase of "cakes," or small 36-packs of tubes that fire blasts all at once.

Giving the show some variety are cones that detonate powder right off the barge to get a flame-thrower effect.

The crew's skill really comes into play when firing sequences of grand explosions, spreading them out 20 to 30 in a row.

"That's the expressive part of it," Stambaugh said.

His blueprint for the fireworks arrangement resembles a DNA chart with strands of color sequences that read Y-O-R-B.

Firework powder shots the size of tennis balls are stuffed into most of the 3- to 6-inch tubes along with a plastic bag of explosives to propel the firework and detonate it in the air with another fuse.

For the 12-inch tubes - ones even Anchorage doesn't have - a dozen are located in a box cemented with sand for protection, Stambaugh said. A forearm could easily fit in these cannons, which hold powder shells the size of basketballs.

Checking wiring and fuses from morning until midnight has led to only 1 percent of the fireworks in the show being duds, Stambaugh said.

The fireworks have a price tag of $30,000, paid by the city. It would be several times that amount if the crew were professionals charging big fees, said Bruce Garrison, another volunteer.

"It's greatly appreciated by the community," Garrison said.

The show also relies heavily on donations: Douglas Island Pink and Chum provides the barge, Capt. Joe Taylor with Tongacel tugs the barge out to middle of the channel, Jeffus & Williams Co. provides the wiring, Northland Services stores the equipment in a container year-round and Bullwinkle's Pizza provides food.

The show is scheduled for 11:59 p.m. In case of heavy rain, the show will be postponed until Monday night, Stambaugh said.

• Andrew Petty can be reached at

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