Firework technicians preparing for rainy Fourth of July in Baltimore

The setup for the 20-minute Baltimore Fourth of July Celebration takes four days. That's just laying the fireworks. The barge preparations take a week.

Under industrial-grade aluminum foil and black plastic tarps, 2,492 pounds of explosives lie in wait on a pair of barges at Smith's Shipyard in Curtis Bay.

The wrappings will shield the fireworks for Baltimore's Fourth of July Celebration from the rain expected Monday. In a pinch, the crew could leave them on and shoot the fireworks through them.


"We don't like to do that, but it's not going to be a big deal," said pyrotechnician Mike Mugford. "It's just a bigger mess."

The setup for Monday's 20-minute show takes four days. That's just laying the fireworks. The barge preparations take a week.

The process, Mugford said, is like waiting hours in line for a two-minute roller coaster ride.

A crew of five pyrotechnicians unloaded box after box of the roughly 6,000 fireworks from a truck, built the wooden racks to hold them, and dropped each one into its tube; most of the tubes are set up on a slight angle for maximum dazzle when they're launched over the Inner Harbor.

Steve May, another crew member, placed a set with fuses connected like Christmas lights that will go off in rapid succession during the finale. After sliding fireworks into their tube, he used a wooden two-by-four to push them all the way down to the bottom. They go higher that way.

Different sized tubes hold the fireworks: the bigger the shell, the bigger the bang. Some resemble jellyfish when they explode. Others make a waterfall or crown in the sky.

The fuses are synchronized by a computer to music and a GPS clock and are accurate within a millisecond, Mugford said. The pyrotechnicians test the fuses countlessly before the show starts at about 9:30 p.m., and monitor the whole event, talking to one another on headsets from aboard the barges and onshore.

On the day of, the fire marshal inspects the outfitted barges, which both carry fire extinguishers. The Coast Guard and other agencies help them maneuver through shipping channels and the swarm of private vessels on the water, and make sure the firepower is anchored far enough from shore.

The tugboat-powered trip from Curtis Bay to the Inner Harbor takes an hour and a half. Then there's another two hours spent anchoring the barges and making sure they stay put despite the current, the wind and the explosions, said Kevin Smith, 39, of Pasadena, who owns the barges and the shipyard with his father and his cousin.

Taking it all down again after the show takes another six hours and leaves the crew covered in black soot.

The fireworks show has been launched from the Smiths' barges for 35 years.

"One of the biggest challenges with us is we're a working shipyard, having explosives in the shipyard," Smith said.

For the pyrotechnicians, the biggest factor is the weather. The National Weather Service is forecasting rain showers throughout the day, possibly turning into scattered thunderstorms in the evening.

The decision to postpone or cancel the show due to the weather lies with city and state officials. In that event, the make-up day is Tuesday, beginning at 9:30 p.m.


"Mother Nature is good sometimes," Mugford said. "Sometimes she's not."

The crew brings a tent to put over the fireworks so they don't get wet if it rains during the setup.

Mugford, 31, of Akron, Ohio, doesn't do this full time. He's a geologist. Other members of the team work in information technology for an insurance company.

The special effects company, Pyrotechnico, employs a full-time staff, but many of the pyrotechnicians just work the holidays, when demand surges.

It isn't only New Year's and Fourth of July, though. Pyrotechnico did the fireworks, fire displays and confetti for the Cleveland Cavaliers' NBA championship parade last month. It has supplied effects to concert tours for Nikki Minaj, the Weeknd, Skrillex, Zedd, Justin Timberlake and others, and music festivals such as Coachella and TomorrowWorld, according to its website.

The manual labor of setting up and breaking down — and closely monitoring the launches instead of enjoying the show — is tedious, the pyrotechnicians said.

But they're not too jaded.

"It's still cool," said Vic Weinmann, the lead technician. "Otherwise I wouldn't be here."

If You Go

Fireworks at the Inner Harbor

When: Event starts at 7 p.m., with fireworks set for 9:30 p.m. Monday; rain date is Tuesday.

Where: Inner Harbor, Baltimore