Fireworks offer all the predictability of gunpowder.
Despite all precautions, backup systems and know-how, when flame meets powder, anything can happen.The Deseret News went behind the scenes Wednesday night to see just what does happen at ground zero of a major fireworks display. The drama on the ground proved equal to anything in the sky.
While Donny Osmond claimed the spotlight in the Rice Stadium, a team of pyrotechnicians huddled under a canopy a half-mile away conducting last-minute tests on the evening's fireworks display.
The fireworks - 600 shells of powder, paper and brilliant color - lay in a clearing behind the partially completed Eccles Tennis Center, three dim piles of canisters and wires in the twilight.
Cables run from the racks of fireworks to a computer system set up on the lawn 200 feet away. A system like this has never been used in Utah before. While pyrotechnicians - "pyros" - have been igniting fireworks by computers for years, they have relied on audio signals to do so. "Fire 1," the tape of audio cues would instruct, and the technician presses the button marked "1." "Fire 2, fire 3, fire 4 . . . " and the technician presses the corresponding buttons.
Not this year. Using two computers from Australia - two of only 20 in existence - Lantis Fireworks Productions designed a show that is triggered by digital cues. KCPX transmits the cues from the station to the on-site computer via microwave at the same time it plays the music broadcast in the stadium. As the computer picks up each cue, it sends an impulse through electric cables to the corresponding firework shell and voila! - an explosion.
If all goes well, the pyros - including the computer expert flown in from Australia to assist with the show - can sit back and pick their teeth.
If things go awry, the technicians have two backup systems. Should those fail, there's always a box of matches.
A chronology of fire:
9:45 p.m.: A water truck lumbers one last time around the perimeter of the site, spraying shrubbery and trees with water. Driver Steve Singleton said he lavished 33,600 gallons of water on the one-acre site in the three days since the fireworks arrived, keeping the parched shrubbery soggy round-the-clock.
10 p.m.: Donny Osmond proclaims himself the "Soldier of Love" to Rice Stadium fans. KCPX Engineer Ritchie Bauer announces, "We're 10 minutes away from boogie time."
10:02 p.m.: Bauer starts the emergency generator, "Just in case we lose Utah Power & Light," he says.
10:09 p.m.: "OK, one last commercial to go," Bauer reports, listening to the KCPX broadcast on a headset. "Thirty seconds . . . Ten seconds . . . OK, we're going to go!"
KCPX broadcasts the opening strains of "America, the Beautiful" and the first shells explode from their casing, soaring upward for 7 seconds before exploding again, this time into a cascade of color.
The first rack of 50 shells exploded without problem as the first song finished and Neil Diamond's "America" filled the stadium. The second rack of 50 shells went smoothly.
10:15 p.m.: The third rack fails to fire. The sky falls silent and dark. "We've lost it! Knock it over to voice command," Jackson urged.
"We've lost both systems?" Bauer asked incredulously, as he kicks in the third: a tape of audio firing commands. Jackson presses the corresponding buttons as the voice on the tape calls out, "14, 15, 16, 17."
Fireworks again light up the sky. Exploding only 200 feet away, the large, 12-inch shells literally rattle the bones.
A quick check reveals that the digital cue system did not fail. Instead, the cable to the third rack of shells shorted out. The rack - with its essential load of 50 shells - must now be manually ignited.
Jackson begins igniting the fourth and fifth racks. Lantis' David Taylor, dons a fireproof coat, hardhat and gloves, grabs a flashlight and plunges into the explosion of light and sound to manually ignite the third rack. Huddled between the racks, Taylor takes the battery out of his flashlight and touches the battery's terminals to the each of the 50 fuses, one after another.
10:20 p.m.: The second crisis: Falling debris, still aflame, lands on the rack of finale shells. The finale shells explode into the air - seven minutes ahead of schedule. "That was the finale," Taylor says to Jackson. "Now what are we going to do?"
10:24 p.m.: The strains of "The Star Spangled Banner" starts up. "We're going to salvage this," Taylor mutters. "The people won't know. We'll know. But they won't."
Taylor had planned two finales: a "baby finale" to tease the audience with and - seconds later - the real one. Only one of the two finales exploded early.
The remaining finale explodes on cue to the final strains of music, and the men see the third crisis: a 2-foot blaze burning briskly near the computer.
Taylor grabs a fire extinguisher and douses the blaze, while security officers prowl the nearby Mount Olivet Cemetery in search of stray blazes and the water truck again lumbers around the perimeter of the fire site.
The stadium empties and surrounding roads clog with cars. "I think it was a good show," Taylor concludes.