*Fireworks, When Things Go Wrong*
A few years ago we were hired to do a pyrotechnics barge show.
We arrived about mid afternoon and made contact with the local fire department that was going to give us a boat ride to the construction barge anchored in the middle of the harbor. From shore we observed an excavator sitting in the middle of the barge, which was SUPPOSED to be empty. The steel barge measured about 40’ x 20’ with about 8’ of free board. We rode out and climbed up on the barge to have a closer look and found oxy/acetylene torches, a barrel of diesel fuel and other construction things. On the bow were piles of metal beams.
We decided there was enough room on the barge to do the show if the excavator, torches, and diesel fuel were moved to the stern. The flammables were behind the excavator which would act as a solid shield between the fireworks and fuels. We returned to shore to pick up the gun racks and fireworks. After loading the fire department’s boat they took us back to the barge and we transferred the load. The boat left and we started planning the show and setting up the racks.
It was basically like this. The rice cake was near the corner and the finale’ was about 6’ away. To the left of the finale’ were a bunch of steel beams. About mid deck is where the main show was located. We were shooting 2, 3 and 4 inch shells.
Rice Cake- I’ll explain this right now as it is what went wrong. This rice cake is a cardboard box measuring about 2’x2’ by 10” high. Inside are 102 1” diameter tubes containing shells. They are made to fire straight up and climb to about 100’ before exploding. Once you light the fuse, there is no stopping it. There are a few timed delays and it takes about 30 seconds to fire 102 rounds. That averages out to about 3 per second.
The set up was good. We ran a fuse from the rice cake down to the mid deck area so it could be lit w/o having to walk to it. The finale’ would stay covered with the canvas tarp until it was ready to fire. The guns at mid deck contained some flights of three, some singles and whatever else we decided to make.
All guns were loaded to make a good show. The shells come labeled as to what they are. There are two types “American” and “Oriental”. American are mostly reports (noise) and the Orientals are mostly color and design with minimal noise. We were fussy about what was loaded where. We didn’t want too much color and design and not enough noise and vice versa. We also didn’t want too many of the same colors in the air at the same time or following each other too closely. We also didn’t want too many of the same diameter shells going up at once because then it’d just be a big mess of light and color. We built the shows so we could put 2” shells up and then work the 3’s and 4’s up above them. Layering them made the show better. It could take well over two hours just to load because we were making sure to mix things up.
After loading everything we taped the guns and then began tying fuses and inserting time delays. When that was done we covered everything with canvas tarps and waited for darkness. The fire department and Coast Guard provided a security zone around the barge. My aunt was on the fire department’s boat.
Darkness arrived and the four of us got ready. I had scrounged some old structural fire fighting gear for the rest of the crew and I had my turn out gear on, which paid off this particular night. The first Salute went up which consists of a flash followed by an extremely loud report. BANG! It’s the attention getter to let the audience know the show is about to begin.
We started the show by putting up some singles and then flights of 3 and throwing in some flights of 10 Orientals with a couple of Americans for the reports and built the show up. After firing for about 10 minutes we put up what many would think was the finale’. We heard horns honking and people hooting and hollering…. Oh….. but we ain’t done yet!! It’s time for the mid show.
When we used a rice cake, we’d light it and then put larger shells up above to supplement with color and noise.
My uncle lit the rice cake and the fire raced down the fuse to the box and stopped. Umm... ok... I was closest to it so I cautiously approached it and saw that the fuse had failed. I leaned over and lit it with my flare. This time it worked. The damn thing blew up on deck!!! From the time I lit it until things went bad was about 2 seconds. It ignited but instead of climbing to 100’, the shells cleared the tubes, climbed maybe 10’ then fell onto the deck and exploded. Everybody else was back in the mid deck area, I was the only one up near the mess.
The shells were literally falling at my feet and exploding!! Remember that’s about 3 every second. Where am I standing? Oh yes... right next to the finale’ which was still covered in canvas. I was expecting it to go up any second. All that needed to happen was for one of the rice cake round to bounce on the deck, roll under the tarp and burn through a fuse cover and ignite the fuse.
I started backing away toward the mid deck area. I was feeling the concussion and my upper body started to hurt. My 3 uncles on the barge with me saw me standing in the middle of that and thought something bad was going to happen. The fire department told my aunt they were going to come in with the boat and extract us. She put a stop to that... what happens if one of those shells lands in the boat and explodes? She kept counting heads. She saw my uncles retreating to the back of the barge and saw me backing up. She told the fire fighters that if we jumped overboard, THEN things were bad.
After the rice cake stopped, I cautiously walked back up to it and kicked it over the side.
The show must go on. We continued firing and finished the show without further incident. The crew joke was “If you get hit by a shell and land face down, we’ll roll you over so you can finish watching the show”.
My chest, mainly my sternum was hurting for a couple days afterwards. Even my uncles said they were feeling it too and they were 15’ away when TSHTF. Even those small 1” rounds pack quite a punch. I’m glad I was wearing my bunker gear that night so at least I wouldn’t get burnt. I was fire proof, but not explosion proof.
Did it stop me from doing pyrotechnics? Not a chance!
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