When Kristy Neimiller started setting off the fireworks for Laurel's celebration with her dad 11 years ago, she was drawn into it by the "adrenaline rush," she said, and she hasn't stopped shooting since.
"It never scared me when I was a kid," she said.
Her dad, Jim Kronmeyer, who owns Danneman's Auto Services, inherited the job around 1996 or 1997 he said, and has been entertaining Laurel spectators since then.
This year, Laurel's Independence Day festivities on July 7 will conclude with the pyrotechnic mastery of lead shooter Neimiller, assisted by Kronmeyer and a third fireworks volunteer, Oscar Romano, beginning at 9:15 p.m. at Laurel Lakes in Granville Gude Park.
"We're all like a big family," Neimiller said. "It's a lot of fun."
The three Laurel residents are certified to shoot the mortar fireworks that professionals shoot around the country to celebrate the country's independence.
"I think it's great" to have residents certified, said Kay Harrison, chairwoman of Laurel's Fourth of July Committee. "I'd much rather have our guys do it than a company."
Neimiller, Kronmeyer and Romano are professionals, and it wasn't easy becoming certified to do this.
Before becoming fully certified, a person has to go on three shoots with licensed shooters. Kronmeyer went on shoots with a former Laurel shooter, and Neimiller went on shoots with her father. Both became certified through Fireworks Extravaganza Inc. in Pennsylvania, and attend classes to be recertified each year.
"I've always enjoyed shooting guns and playing with pyrotechnics as a kid," said Kronmeyer, on his decision to become certified to shoot fireworks for Laurel and other events.
Soon after Kronmeyer became certified in the late 1990s, Neimiller became interested in shooting, too, and he began passing on the trade to her over the years.
"I'm the lead shooter, but I still look to my dad for some guidance because I'm fairly new," Neimiller said.
The training and test were really hard, Neimiller said. They needed to know all of the Maryland laws regarding fireworks, as well as distances of the launch site to spectators, buildings and hospitals. The test is mostly about ensuring the safety of the shooters and the spectators.
The shooters wear long shirts, hats, safety glasses and ear plugs during the show and prep.
"We've been fortunate not to have any accidents," said Romano, who has been shooting fireworks with Kronmeyer and Neimiller since 2005.
"It's always dangerous," Kronmeyer said. "All kinds of mishaps can happen when you set them up."
For example, when Kronmeyer, Neimiller or Romano are filling the mortar tubes — the canisters that contain the explosive cakes that make the fireworks — they can't lean over them, because even static electricity could set them off.
Luckily, that's the only time they are in close proximity to the explosives. Almost all of the shows they do are set off remotely and electronically, by a switchboard that controls a 12-volt car battery connected by wire to the fireworks, which in turn, ignites them.
Handle with care
Even before ignition, the fireworks need to be handled with care. The day before the show, the mortar tubes are filled up and put onto the barges that sit in the middle of Laurel Lakes. The area around the lake is closed off to visitors before the show for their safety.
The fireworks can only remain in the state of Maryland for 24 hours, Kronmeyer said, so they spend all day and some of Friday night arranging their show ahead of time.
When the sun goes down and the crowd's anticipation is at its highest, that's when Neimiller and her crew set off their first test shots to gauge if the wind has died down enough to make it safe to shoot off the rest of the fireworks. Kronmeyer said it is usually pretty safe, because wind tends to calm down around dusk.
Then, the show can finally begin.
They usually start with some colorful bursts, the kind of fireworks that fill the whole sky with a shower of sparkle about 300 feet in the air.
Next, they do a few "salutes," the loud bangs that are pops of sound and color.
"You can feel the percussion go through you," even though they're shooting from more than 30 feet away, said Romano.
After that, they move onto some of the complex designs that amaze people the most, Kronmeyer said.
"You really know which ones please the crowd and which don't," he said. Even though he's far away from the crowds wearing ear plugs, Kronmeyer can still hear their "oohs and ahhs," his favorite part.
During the show, the trio tries to alternate the barges they shoot from, to add visual variety. They try to keep something in the air at all times, Kronmeyer said.
"The best ones are the finales," said Romano. "At the end of the night, you're kind of excited to see all the stuff you put together."
Laurel's Independence Day celebration, held yearly the Saturday closest to July 4, will be held July 7, beginning with a parade at 11 a.m. on Montgomery and Fourth streets to Cherry Lane. Events at Granville Gude Park include an antique and classic car show at 11 a.m., and a hot dog eating contest at 2 p.m. Live music begins at 5:15 p.m., and fireworks are shot over Laurel Lakes beginning at approximately 9:15 p.m. For more information, go to laurel.md.us/LaurelFourth.