A Blast in More Ways Than One

Before the Great Bonac Fireworks show on Saturday, Fireworks by Grucci workers laid out bundles of shells on top of mortar tubes on a barge at the town dock in a sequence that would define the spectacle to light up the sky that night. Joanne Pilgrim

    While tons of people flocked to Three Mile Harbor for the Great Bonac Fireworks Saturday night, not many were aware of the two days of effort it took to set up the show.
    On Friday and Saturday, a team from Fireworks by Grucci worked on a barge tied up to the town commercial dock at Gann Road preparing for the display. Steve Coluccio, who has been a pyrotechnician for Grucci for 25 years, headed the team.
    On day one, black plastic mortar tubes all marked “Grucci” in white script jutted upright across the barge within steel grids, each placed in a square sized to hold tubes from which 3-to-8-inch aerial shells would blast. Numbers indicating where each firework in the program was to be placed were written on masking tape along the edge of the frame.
    Yellow wires that would be attached to the shells snaked across the deck. A thick sheaf of papers provided the schematic for laying out the fireworks that would create the show.
    A classic rock radio station played “Rock the Casbah” by the Clash. The guys helped themselves from a cooler full of water and juice as they worked under the hot sun.
    The next morning, the team would drive out — carefully — with a truck loaded with fireworks. Though there is “inherent danger” in the business, Mr. Coluccio said, “Grucci has really set the bar for everybody else in the industry as far as safety.”
    Members of last weekend’s crew — part-time workers for the fireworks company, which calls up trained technicians as needed — had numerous shows under their belts: in Vegas, at weddings, for the World Cup horse race in Dubai.
    Back at the dock on Saturday morning, after an hour of unloading and emptying cardboard boxes marked “Explosive,” the process of placing each shell atop its mortar tube began.
    The team moved systematically from tube-filled grid to grid, wiring the shells and attaching them to small wire panels dangling off the edge of each frame.
    Wires from each of those boards, in turn, would be attached to a master control panel, an electrical board Mr. Coluccio revealed from a plain black box imprinted with a blue spray of fireworks.
    Curious onlookers passed by on boats entering and leaving the harbor. The sun beat down and three cormorants sat, their wings outstretched to dry, on a lamppost at the corner of the dock. The workers told one another stories as they twisted and attached the wires.
    David Browne, East Hampton’s chief fire marshal, remained at hand. Leading a visitor under the yellow tape surrounding the barge, he jokingly referred to the Grucci team as “pyromaniacs.”
    “Pyrotechnicians,” Mr. Coluccio corrected him with a laugh. “Well, maybe at one time. . . .” he allowed.
    The wiring would take all day, right up until the barge was to head off to its position in the harbor, at around 5 or 6 p.m.
    Every fireworks shell has a lift charge in the bottom, and an electric match.
    A small amount of voltage fires the match and ignites the lift charge, sending the shell into the air. It also starts a timed fuse within the shell, so that when the firework reaches the required height, it goes off.
    The height each shell must reach before sending its lights and colors raining through the sky depends on the size of the shell, Mr. Coluccio said. For every inch of diameter, it must travel up 100 feet before exploding. Although an eight-inch shell weighs four or five pounds, the charge is powerful enough to send it 800 feet high in only four or five seconds.
    Needless to say, you don’t want to put any of the shells in their tubes upside down.
    “That’ll cause a problem,” Mr. Coluccio said — an understatement. It could take a whole section out, he said, if one of the shells explodes in the tube instead of in the air.
    Mr. Coluccio has been interested in fireworks “ever since I was a kid. I saw these kids lighting firecrackers in a field by my house, and my father lighting fireworks.” When he got older, he used to buy his own. But then the opportunity to become a Grucci technician came up. “I figured, why spend money to do it, when I could get paid to do it? It gets in your blood,” he said. “The smoke . . . the concussion, it gets in your blood.”
    On Saturday night, the team of six pyrotechnicians perched at one end of the barge, just yards away from the shells lined up in rows and grids inside their black mortar tubes.
    Some technicians, after completing training and then experiencing their first explosive night of setting off a fireworks show from the barge, get rattled and decide never to do it again, said Mr. Coluccio. His two sons are now in the business, too, he said.
    “It’s an adrenaline rush, for sure. For 15 minutes, your blood is pumping, your chest is thumping.”
    For Saturday night’s 18-minute show, a couple thousand shells were set off. Many of the company’s programs are computerized, but this one required hands-on attention. Onshore on Saturday night, Felix Grucci Jr., who, with other family members, runs the company founded by his ancestors five generations back, broadcast to the barge crew, by radio, a tape of cues for the program — a sequence timed down to the second to coordinate with the time required for each of the fireworks to reach the required height and do its thing.
    This year’s Three Mile Harbor show was choreographed to Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man.”
    On cue, each individual “hit” was made on a master control panel on the barge. “You have to physically use two hands to fire the panel,” Mr. Coluccio said, holding one button down with the left hand while touching another with the right. For safety, the panel has a “dead man’s switch.”
    Up went the “blue white strobing peony with red pistil,” followed by the “dragon eggs,” a “tiger tail of green wave,” and “brocade crowns.”
    Different metals in the shells create the different colors. Iron burns gold, copper, blue. Bright white is created by titanium.
    The “finale chains,” those rapid-fire white flashing fireworks that create a booming grand finale, are also called “titanium salutes.” It’s the titanium, Mr. Coluccio said, that makes that reverberating thump. “It’s a lot of noise in a short period of time, and very, very fast,” he said of the finale.
    After the show, the crew secured the barge and went off for some much-needed rest at a hotel on Napeague. The next morning, the breakdown and cleanup would begin.