Strobes, salutes and weeping willows burst into the night sky as people along the waterfront in downtown Louisville enjoyed the 11th annual Thunder Over Louisville. The show kicked off two weeks of celebration, which culminated with the Kentucky Derby’s Run for the Roses at Churchill Downs.
The extravaganza attracted more than 800,000 people who watched from televisions and hotel terraces, and many arrived early in the day or the previous night to choose a prime spot along the waterfront of the Ohio River. Putting on a show of that magnitude takes a lot of hard work, and no one knows that better than the pyrotechnicians who work for Zambelli Fireworks Internationale of New Castle, Pa.
The pyrotechnicians worked for 10 days setting up the show. The explosives are trucked in on five Freightliners and six straight trucks from Zambelli’s plant, and many of the truckers work as pyrotechnicians, also known as shooters.
“We rely on the drivers quite a bit,” says Michael Richards, vice president of operations at Zambelli. “Some drivers deliver only, but others work the show as pyrotechnicians. It’s a great help to us.”
George Zambelli Sr., the president of Zambelli, appreciates that the drivers are trained to be pyrotechnicians and says their work is essential to his company.
“They’re the best,” he says. “They’re very valuable. It’s an advantage that they can drive and do the pyrotechnic work. We’d have to hire more employees if they didn’t.”
All fireworks shows are important to the Zambellis whether it’s a big draw like Thunder or smaller Fourth of July shows. The company produces 1,800 fireworks displays each Fourth of July and uses more than 1 million shells. Zambelli’s goal is to please their customers and feel good about the results.
“The bigger shows carry more prestige,” Richards says. “But our bread and butter are the smaller shows on the Fourth. We do hundreds of those.”
This year’s Thunder was titled 2001 Space Odyssey and was synchronized to music with a space theme. The Thunder Over Louisville committee selected the music produced by Wayne Hettinger and Tim Creed. The soundtrack was sent to Richards, who chose the fireworks effects he thought worked best with the music.
Zambelli uses launching tubes of explosives that range from 4 inches to 16 inches in diameter. A tube that is 16 inches in diameter will shoot fireworks 1,200 feet into the air. More than 51,000 shells and 75 tons of explosives were ignited in 27 minutes. The initial crew for Thunder began with 20 staff members, but it grew throughout the week to 35 people. There were 3,000 feet of fireworks on each side of the bridge for a total of 6,000 feet.
The pyrotechnicians set fireworks on barges that are later connected to the fireworks on the Second Street Bridge. Two large barge units were used. The barge units consisted of three barges that measured 200 by 35 feet connected together. The barge units were stationed in the Ohio River on opposite sides of the bridge. They were docked and sent up river on the show day to wait in a lock until the U.S. Coast Guard cleared them to move into position.
A few days before Thunder, the pyrotechnicians set explosives along the Second Street Bridge, and on the day of the show the last explosives were set and the computers were connected.
The Second Street Bridge is a major source of travel and links Louisville to Indiana. The bridge is closed on Friday before the show and reopened on Sunday at 2 p.m. On Sunday, the pyrotechnicians start early in the morning dismantling the explosives and cleaning up.
Eleven computers run the show. The main computer located in the command center on the 24th Floor of the Galt House hotel signals the other computers when to fire. Three computers are on each barge unit; two are used as backups. There are four computers located along the bridge.
On show day, Richards runs a final check on the computers and explosives. If it’s raining, but wind conditions are right and there is no lightning, the show can go on because the fireworks are protected with plastic. If a large storm develops, the men on the barge and the Thunder Over Louisville committee decide if the show will be canceled.
“Safety is our No. 1 concern,” Richards says.
Shooters and truckers
Bobby Mays, 28, of New Castle, has worked seven years for the Zambellis. He started his career after high school when he was hired to load trucks. When Mays turned 21, he got his commercial driver’s license with a hazmat endorsement so that he could drive the trucks and work as a pyrotechnician. After seven years, Mays says he enjoys trucking, but his biggest thrill is seeing the fireworks show.
“By the time we’re halfway across the country, you’re a trucker whether you like it or not,” he says. “It’s the best job in the world. I get to go all over the country and see the country because I drive it. Everywhere I go, they’re having parties. We go to the parties and set up the fireworks. There’s nothing like explosives. It’s the best toy.”
Mays worked on the New Year’s 2001 show in Las Vegas. The explosives were ignited from 11 rooftops, including the Eiffel Tower in the Paris Hotel and lasted eight minutes.
The first show Mays worked on as a pyrotechnician was the 1991 Fourth of July event in Pittsburgh. Mays was on a barge going up the river after the show when he realized how much people appreciated the show. He was hooked.
“So many people come and enjoy what we deliver,” he says. “It’s a great feeling.”
George Gallientine, also of New Castle, has worked for Zambelli Fireworks since 1989 when he mowed the lawns around the plant while in high school. Now, he works as a driver and pyrotechnician.
Gallientine says that when the company gets a permit for a show, it receives routing directions. The drivers have to check the routing before they travel to a show and have to be aware of tunnels and each state’s regulations. In Pittsburgh, firemen escorted them to the site, and they take the beltway around Columbus and Cincinnati instead of driving through the cities.
When loading a trailer the drivers separate the fireworks from other cargo with plywood dividers, and the load is locked into place with load lockers. Because of their dangerous load, it’s important to drive safely and to be alert.
“If there was an accident, we would stop traffic and form a parameter until the police arrive and checked the site for safety,” he says. “We’d also make sure no one was hurt.”
Zambelli was one of the fireworks companies that put on the fireworks show at the Statue of Liberty in 1986. The company set off 26,400 shells in New York City’s harbor. That was a big show, but Louisville is Zambelli’s largest solo show.
“This is the big one – the granddaddy,” he says. “It’s the biggest show in the U.S. that is produced by one company.”
When the pyrotechnicians aren’t putting on a show, they are in the plant making the fireworks. Pyrotechnicians have various backgrounds, including construction workers, roofers and bomb squad technicians, and are trained on the job by seasoned veterans.
Raymond Lofreedo, Zambelli project manager, has worked as a pyrotechnician for 17 years. Lofreedo and another pyrotechnician worked three weeks in the plant making the golden waterfall firework that falls from the bridge’s rail down to the Ohio River. The fuse, which runs the length of the bridge, burns 47 feet a second, and is covered in aluminum so that the sparks from other fireworks won’t ignite the waterfall early.
After the show is set and the explosives are ready to ignite, it’s time for the shooters to sit back and enjoy the show.
“I’m not sure where I’ll be this year,” Mays says. “Last year, I watched from Joe’s Crab Shack (restaurant). I got to see the bridge go off. It’s amazing and something else to see. There are so many fireworks that it’s too much to look at.”
A Language of Their Own
Like truckers, pyrotechnicians have a language of their own. The following are a few terms to keep in mind when watching your next fireworks event.
Chrysanthemums: Stars that burst from a central core with trails.
Hummers: Small tube that spins and creates a screaming or humming sound.
Patterns: Stars that explode creating a shape such as 5-pointed stars and hearts.
Peonies: Stars that burst from a central core without trails.
Salutes: The booms that end most shows.
Strobes: Clusters of flashing silvery lights that appear to float slowly to the ground.
Weeping Willows: Amber stars that fall while outlining the branches of the willow.
Whistles: Noise-making tubes that dart across the sky with noise and shell bursts.
Provided by Zambelli Fireworks