Rocket man

Pyrotechnician Jeff Thomas tells of an all-green fireworks show, working past midnight on New Year's 1999 and his mortal enemy: Fog.

By Jenn Shreve
July 3, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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Jeff Thomas has not celebrated the Fourth of July since 1974. As a pyrotechnician, it's Thomas' job to design and set off the dazzling fireworks shows that mark the end of a day packed with barbecued hot dogs, softball games and rousing renditions of the national anthem. Thomas, 46, has been working full time as a show producer and sales representative for Pyro Spectaculars since 1990. From 1971 to 1990, he moonlighted as a licensed pyrotechnician while working for AT&T. Thomas' clients are spread from California's central coast to the Oregon border. He also works with Pyro Spectaculars on Hong Kong's annual Chinese New Year celebration and special events like the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. Salon spoke with Thomas at his home in San Leandro about designing a fireworks show, the dangers of handling explosives and working on Dec. 31, 1999.

How did you get started in the fireworks business?

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When I was a kid, I helped a neighbor of mine who now owns Pyro Spectaculars unload trucks and do miscellaneous jobs not directly related to lighting fireworks. It was exciting to know that I was behind the scenes entertaining people. After doing it for a while, I also understood and appreciated the dangers involved. In 1974, when I was 21, I was licensed as a pyrotechnician.

How do you get licensed?

It takes no schooling. I learned through on-the-job training. That's how everyone gets into this. You have to do eight shows in a two-year span, and you have to get five letters of recommendation from licensed operators. An electrical background helps a lot. Knowing fire safety is also helpful. You take a written test, pass a background check and get your license.

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When you were a kid, did you like to blow things up?

I played with firecrackers just like any boy did. Nothing unusual. It wasn't some sort of fascination with me. It was just a coincidence that I got in the profession.

What goes into designing a fireworks show?

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Every pyrotechnic operator has his or her own way of putting on a show and lighting it into the air. Most of the shows that are shot on the Fourth of July are not choreographed. You just shoot some small fireworks, some larger ones, some small ones, some larger ones -- slower to faster with a huge finale. There is some design in mind, but it's minimal compared to the shows that are the next step up, which are electronically fired and typically choreographed to a music soundtrack and sometimes broadcast on a radio station or just over a PA system. We listen to the music, and we have a program that helps us plot out when we want certain things to happen. They say, "My heart grows big"; we can do a heart shower -- when the shell explodes, it explodes into a heart.

You can do patterns and designs?

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The patterns are limited. Every year, it seems like there's a new pattern. The newest one we have is a happy face. We have shells that look like strawberries -- very nice pattern. We also have a U, an S and an A. We're trying to send a 2, an 0, an 0 and an 0 up. It's tough. Most of our shows are three dimensional: Wherever you're standing you can see the shell. The pattern shells are one dimensional. Depending on the way they orient, the main viewing audience is going to see it, but somebody else may not see it.

How do you practice?

Practice is difficult. At most entertainment fields -- I do some indoor displays as well -- you watch the sound guy do his sound check, and they rehearse and rehearse and rehearse. Our rehearsals are basically the last show we did.

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You don't go out into the desert and blow things up?

There are some remote desert areas that we use. Every year we get new products in from suppliers. We'll take a bundle of those out and launch them up to check how the shells are going to function. We sometimes find a shell that is malfunctioning consistently.

How much does one shell cost?

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An average shell ranges anywhere from $10 to $15 on the low end to $200 to $300 for larger shells.

How many shells would you use for a typical Fourth of July show?

A small show would probably have 200 to 300 shells. Some of the larger shows have 2,000 to 3,000 shells.

How do you light them?

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There are several ways to light them. The majority of shows on the Fourth of July are lit with a highway flare. The shell has a fuse that comes out of the mortar. You light the fuse, it goes in and launches the shell up in the air. But the other way of igniting the shell is electronically firing it. They have what we call an electric match which we take and put into the fuse. We run it to a terminal, and we either push a button manually or a computer gives a signal to fire it. That's the latest step in the computer technology.

How much of your work can you do on the computer? Can you see how something is going to look beforehand?

We're not quite there yet. We do have some graphic design, and we have the capability of mixing and matching shells, sizes, durations and assembling them in a show script. We do a lot of the scripting on a computer, and some of our major productions are fired with the computer.

How big is the danger element in your profession?

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We try not to look at it as a dangerous profession, but it certainly is. We're dealing with explosives, sometimes large-size explosives. We have safety precautions, safety clothing. When we're on a fireworks site, we're always thinking about safety and just being cautious and careful about it.

Do you worry about fireworks falling on people on the ground?

Part of getting a permit to do a fireworks display is providing what we call a fall-out or safety zone. We have guidelines set up to decide how large an area that needs to be based on the size of the shell or the device that we're using. If the audience stops at a barricade that says stop, they're safe. Wind and things of that nature can disrupt that fall-out area. So, my recommendation is always stay back. Quite honestly, getting close doesn't make viewing the fireworks any better. You just have to crane your neck and look up higher.

How do you deal with fog?

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It's one of our most difficult elements. We do the Chronicle's Fourth of July show every year in San Francisco. It's just a flip of the coin whether there's going to be fog or not. But we try to plan our show with a lot of lower level elements in it so that even if the fog does come in, a good portion of the show will still be able to be viewed.

What's the weirdest thing you've ever been asked to do?

A lady whose favorite color was green was getting married. They wanted an all-green fireworks display. For somebody to come up and ask for a five-minute show of all green was one of my most unique requests.

Can any private citizen commission a big fireworks display?

Anybody -- birthday party, wedding, graduation; we do high school graduations, high school homecoming games. Obviously, July Fourth is our main season. New Year's this year is going to be one of our busiest New Year's ever. Spring is very busy for us. We do a lot of the baseball teams' opening days. Continually through the year, we're doing movies, television, theme parks. Every weekend, we're doing something somewhere in California.

On Dec. 31, 1999, you're going to be hard at work. Is that frustrating?

It is a little bit. We work so hard for the Fourth of July. The stress level is enormous. It's nice to take a breather. We typically start working on the next Fourth of July in October, November. This year, we have to hit the ground running and continue on.

And you won't be sipping champagne until 1 a.m.

That's one of the deterrents for a lot of the guys that do this. Most of the helpers have regular jobs; they do this as a part-time hobby.

Is there a special way to transport fireworks?

Just the types of boxes they're transported in, the way that they're stacked in a truck. Fireworks are pretty stable unless they get around heat or fire. They don't typically go off from bouncing or shock or traveling down the road. To my knowledge there has not been a reported highway-type accident with fireworks as with some of the other hazardous materials that have had a lot of problems. But when you're driving down the road, you're thinking about it. If the truck bangs or something, it's like, "Whoa!"

After Fourth of July, do you have your own celebration -- like a July 5th barbecue?

Yeah, right. July 5th, I'm trying to sleep.


Jenn Shreve

Jenn Shreve writes about media, technology and culture for Salon, Wired, the Industry Standard, the San Francisco Examiner and elsewhere. She lives in Oakland, Calif.

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