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How Washington’s Fourth of July fireworks display comes together

🕐 5 min read

WASHINGTON — Sometimes, Chris Santore believes, more is more.

That will be his approach Monday night, when he plans to pack more than 5,000 fireworks into 17 1/2 minutes for the Fourth of July celebration on the National Mall. So much bang in such a small window of time means a more-intense experience for the throngs of spectators watching explosions 1,500 feet up in the sky.

“The finale is just blow-your-hair-back,” Santore said. The display will “scream ‘July Fourth in Washington, D.C.’ And I think that’s an appropriate tone to set.”

On Thursday, his crew worked among neat double rows of black canisters lined up like soldiers on either side of the Reflecting Pool, between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument. A paper-wrapped ball of explosives needed to be placed into each high-density polyethylene container and then fitted with an “electric match” made of insulated copper wire, which was then connected to one of 29 circuit boards. The canisters, ranging from three to 10 inches in diameter, were then covered with aluminum foil, to protect them from stray sparks, and black plastic, to protect them from moisture.

Now they were ready to go, and there was no need to uncover them – you could put plywood on top, and they would shoot right through it. (But do not try that at home, Santore warned.)

On Monday night (or Tuesday, if the show gets rained out), Santore will be at the Lincoln Memorial, overseeing the computer that will follow a sequence he orchestrated in advance, choreographed to music he chose from a selection that the National Parks Service provided.

All he has to do is push a button.

That’s a long way from the simple, manually ignited road-flare-type fireworks that his great-grandfather Augustine Santore learned to set off as a young man in Italy. In the 1860s, he apprenticed with the master fireworker to King Victor Emmanuel II of Italy; three decades later, he moved to New Jersey and opened his own factory, now called Garden State Fireworks. (Apparently, this was a thing: Three of the largest fireworks companies in the United States today were started by Italians in the 1800s.)

Augustine’s descendants continued the tradition, providing pyrotechnic displays at events across North America, including the Statue of Liberty centennial celebration, the Winter Olympics in Calgary, Alberta, and the Super Bowl – and, since 2013, the Fourth of July celebration on the Mall. Chris Santore’s father, aunt, uncle, cousins and brothers all work in the business, and his children are starting to apprentice.

Along the way, they have won international competitions and befriended other fireworks luminaries around the globe.

“There’s good camaraderie among pyrotechnicians, and everyone has our own unique approach,” said Santore, 42. The Germans like strobes; the Spanish like rockets. “It’s like food – think of it that way. You’ve got different recipes for international cuisines. … When we show up with our 100-pound multi-break shells, they shake their heads: ‘These crazy Italians, why are they bringing 100-pound fireworks all the way to Spain?’ “

The fireworks traveled last week from Millington, New Jersey, on a 53-foot tractor-trailer, a 24-foot truck and two 16-foot trucks. Installing them on the Mall is a more delicate procedure than it would be at, say, a fairground. “You’re dealing with national treasures here, and protecting (tree) root systems,” Santore said. For those reasons, only smaller trucks were used to bring the materials on site.

Selecting songs and choreographing a display to match them is an integral part of the process. “The music is really the foundation, so you really need the right tones and tempos,” Santore said. “I like to open strong and then build some highs and lows, peaks and valleys,” reflecting the ebb and flow of the explosions.

“If all the music was fast and all the fireworks were fast,” he said, “you could really tune out the music.”

This year’s mix, which will be easiest to hear near the Washington Monument, includes patriotic music, rock, pop and 1970s classics. There will also be a Prince song to honor the star, who recently died, and the Beatles’ “Birthday” – a special nod to the Parks Service, which turns 100 this year.

Even in the computer age, fireworks manufacturing involves a good amount of physical labor. The color component, known as a “star,” is made similarly to how a snowball is formed. The technicians put a small item – such as a piece of pasta – into a color composition powder and roll it around until it grows into a large ball.

Along with the mix of chrysanthemum, peony, crossette and salute firework effects spraying across the night sky, Santore’s favorite is the gold-flitter streamer, a Garden State invention that produces a shooting-star effect with a glittering tail.

The area around the Reflecting Pool was closed off this week to everyone but the ducks, who swam around looking a little confused as to why things were so quiet, and Santore’s team, which includes three high school technology teachers who do this work on their off time.

“My father was a schoolteacher, too, and he taught the other Santore brother,” said one of them, Brian Megaro, who wore a cowboy hat to keep off the sun. “I said, ‘Dad, can I go backstage and see what they do?’ “

Now Megaro is the second pyrotechnician in command, a job that brings him some respect among his students. “Everybody loves to see stuff blowing up.”

Everett Seemann, 57, a bearlike man with shaggy gray hair, has been working for the company for 34 years. “I do all the mixing of the high-power explosives,” he said. He was a baker before he became a pyrochemist. “It’s the same thing: You have to measure everything right.”

Unlike with cake ingredients, though, he said, “if you do the wrong thing, you’re history.”

Seemann said he kind of likes the danger: “You live on the edge every day.” And he likes the end result: “You see the fireworks go up, and you say, ‘Wow, I made most of that.'”

Video: Fireworks are made up of shells that determine what they look like once they are lit up. Here are six popular types of fireworks that you’ll likely see in the skies during July 4 celebrations. (By Claritza Jimenez / The Washington Post)



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