Zambelli Fireworks pyrotechnicians George Remensnyder, Aaron Stephens, and Ky Mahaffee put on a show in Mt. Airy July 3.
George Remensnyder, who has been a part of Zambelli Fireworks for nearly 50 years, said there is one piece of advice he's learned over his long career.
"If you see us running," Remensnyder said, "try to keep up."
Remensnyder, alongside fellow employees Ky Mahaffey and Aaron Stephens, arrived at the Mount Airy fairgrounds early Friday morning to begin setting up the fireworks show that would thrill crowds more than 12 hours later. Starting at 9 a.m., the three began the long process of setting up the more than 1,000 fireworks that would be detonated through the show.
Remensnyder, who described himself as a fireworks artist, said the industry has changed a lot since 1960. During his career, he has set up fireworks shows for Queen Elizabeth, the Beach Boys and Bob Hope.
When Remensnyder started, he said, local youths would dig out trenches in which the fireworks would be placed. Over the years, the trenches transitioned to steel tubes from which the fireworks could be launched. In turn, the tubes eventually gave way to tin, cardboard, then finally a high-heat-resistant plastic, which is used today.
Each of the more than 1,000 fireworks is launched from its own tube, organized in wooden frames of five or 10 in a row.
The day begins with the trio setting up these frames on the grounds where the fireworks will be launched, lifting 150 different sets of tubes and placing them where they will best be seen by the crowds.
These frames of five or 10 tubes are lined up, with about 10 in a row, and then attached to one another with long strips of wood and a simple nail gun. The process takes about an hour, though Remensnyder said it is nothing compared to the days when they had to use a hammer instead of the gun.
Finally, it's time to place the fireworks — or bombs, as the men refer to them — in each tube. Each firework consists of a lift charge on the bottom, while the tail of the firework is actually located on the top. In the lift charge is a precisely cut time fuse, which burns until the piece is at the proper altitude and the entire piece is detonated.
There are two lighting methods today for fireworks. Organizers can light them manually through the use of a road flare, while others can be lit electronically using an electrically charged squib. Remensnyder said the electronic squibs are more costly and more labor-intensive than the manually launched fireworks — like those used at the Mount Airy show.
The manually lit fireworks feature a slow-burn fuse on the end that is lit by those working the show. At the end of the slow-burn fuse is the fuse of the firework itself. Remensnyder said these burn at 156 feet per second, creating an almost instantaneous lift.
Today, when planning out their shows, Mahaffey said organizers use Google Earth printouts to draw their plans. Using these satellite images allows them to mark out nearby houses, roads and railroad crossings, and make sure everything is being launched safely. Remensnyder said that even after 46 years, he still has to have respect for the danger of the job.
"You always got to be on top of everything; that's what I always say," he said. "One of these could kill you. We never put our head or our hand over the tube."
Remensnyder remembered an instance years ago when a fuse stopped right at the edge of the firing tube. He carefully used a road flare to light the fast-acting part of the wick, igniting the firework so quickly that it launched the road flare out of his hand. Remensnyder said the emphasis on safety can affect his enjoyment of the show.
"We don't just stand there and watch them go off," Remensnyder said. "Because when it goes off, there's flames sticking out of there for like two feet."
It's a long, hard day for those setting up the fireworks. They arrive early in the morning to begin their work, usually over the Fourth of July weekend, during one of the hottest times of the year. Because of safety precautions, each site where they set off fireworks is completely absent of shade trees or coverings of any kind.
After the show, while people head home, Mahaffey said, the long cleanup process begins.
"Some places, when the fire company comes and helps us, we're in the truck in a half an hour. Out here, we're going to be here for an hour and a half to two hours," Mahaffey said. "We're hot, we're dirty, we're sunburnt and tired, and all of this crap has got to go back up on the truck."
Despite the heavy labor, the fireworks business is a hobby for these three men. They simply work three weekends out of the year in the middle of July before returning to their nonexplosive lives. Remensnyder, a retired general contractor, said he sticks with it out of passion.
"There's nothing like fireworks," Remensnyder said. "I love them."