In the driver's seat for fireworks


For Luther E. Horine Jr., it should be a typical July 4. He plans to stand tonight amid swirling smoke, streaks of flame and deafening explosions near the Inner Harbor, calmly conducting Baltimore's Independence Day celebration.

The quiet, matter-of-fact Mr. Horine, a 55-year-old resident of Frederick County, is the part-time pyrotechnist who will set off 1 1/2 tons of explosives for the annual fireworks display, scheduled to begin at 9:30 p.m.

He's been "firing" shows, as fireworks professionals say, for almost 40 years. But he says he still enjoys it, from the opening salvo to the Earth-shaking crescendo.

"There's that smell of gunpowder and sulfur," he says. "There's a tremendous amount of noise. You're keeping yourself alert for things, like a shell that may not go off."

Stationed on the sand-covered deck of a barge, Mr. Horine will use an electronic control box to fire row after row of aerial fireworks, called "shells," up to 1,200 feet above the harbor.

During the 20-minute show, he'll launch hundreds of shells from cardboard or plastic tubes, which serve as mortars. The mortars will be placed on two barges: a larger one, stationed off Fells Point, and a smaller one, anchored inside the harbor's basin.

The bigger, more dangerous shells will be on the larger barge, so they can be launched farther from the harbor's crowded shores. Mr. Horine will direct the fusillade from the larger barge.

With the Coast Guard and two city fireboats standing by, Mr. Horine and four assistants will practice an art that originated centuries ago in China, that of turning black powder (the original gunpowder) into bursts of noise and light and enthusiasm.

Mr. Horine works for Zambelli Internationale of New Castle, Pa., which stages 1,800 shows each July 4 and calls itself America's oldest and largest fireworks company. The company recruited him in 1975.

That's the same year Mr. Horine started shooting off fireworks at the harbor.

"I began firing Fourth of July shows off of the pier where the World Trade Center is now," he says. As the seedy waterfront has given way to restaurants and shops and tourist attractions, he says, he has moved his mortars farther and farther down the Middle Branch of the Patapsco, for safety reasons.

Mr. Horine spent the past several weeks preparing for tonight's show, which was "choreographed" by a Zambelli employee who chose particular fireworks with names like "tourbillions," "glittering and crackling palm trees," and "royal flourish titanium salutes" to complement a program of recorded music.

Over the years, Mr. Horine has heard a lot of the musical pieces that traditionally punctuate the climax of fireworks shows: Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture," Rossini's "William Tell Overture," John Philip Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever," and "God Bless America."

His favorite? "I like 'God Bless America,' " he says. "That's a great song to fire to. But they're all good. John Philip Sousa did a real good job."

(Tonight's finale, by the way, is the "1812 Overture.")

Mr. Horine has little time to watch his own shows. He must fire the rockets off at precisely timed intervals. He must worry about wind and wave conditions. He must listen carefully to each shell, to be sure all of the explosive charges it contains detonate.

If a charge fails to go off and the winds are blowing toward the shore, he says, he'll start hunting for it right after the show.

"You have to find those things," he says. "Fireworks are like a magnet to kids."

City officials admire Mr. Horine's careful craftsmanship.

"We have come under criticism for using Zambelli so much, but they have an impeccable record," says Bill Gilmore, Baltimore's director of promotion.

"There's just a real comfort factor in working with them.

"The Zambellis and Luther have fired down there in all different conditions. They understand the water and the wind and the landmarks and exactly where the people are. That's worth a lot."

The city's promotion office will pick up half the show's $50,000 price tag. Sponsors NationsBank and Baltimore magazine will pay for the other half.

Mr. Horine, who lives in Walkersville, has a day job: He's a supervisor of restaurant inspectors for the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. He began working with fireworks in the 1950s, when he helped his father stage fireworks shows for Frederick County carnivals.

He doesn't practice pyrotechnics only on July 4. He also works Memorial Day and Labor Day and New Year's Eve and at Frederick Keys games and dozens of other, smaller, celebrations. He works in the rain and the snow. (He's careful to keep his electric apparatus dry. "You can get shocked pretty good," he says.)

Fireworks have become very popular in recent years. "It's become year-round now," Mr. Horine says. "If there's a slack time, it would be February and March."

Dr. John A. Conkling, an adjunct professor of chemistry at Washington College in Chestertown who specializes in pyrotechnics, said that Americans set off 29 million pounds of fireworks during the U.S. bicentennial celebrations in 1976. Last year, with no particular anniversary to celebrate, they used four times as much, 117 million pounds.

Stricter government regulation of consumer fireworks and the increasing popularity of large public shows, as opposed to backyard displays, have sent the rate of injury from these devices falling.

Last year, Dr. Conkling said, 12,600 people were injured by fireworks in the United States. That's a lot. But, he said, "We were very pleased to see that this represents the lowest injury rate in the 20-odd years that they've been keeping statistics."

Public tastes and market forces have changed large fireworks shows over the years, and not necessarily for the better, in Mr. Horine's view.

Shows used to build slowly to a climax, he says. Now most consist of a single long crescendo of bursting shells.

"I don't know whether their attention span is shorter or what it is, but the public wants everything spectacular," he says.

Cities, companies and others who sponsor professional fireworks shows, he says, often aren't willing to pay for the dazzling, multiple-explosion shells called "multibreaks" that can keep bursting for 10 or 15 seconds. He fears that the art of building those elaborate shells may be lost.

"You'd really watch those shells," he says. "They were something to behold."

Mr. Horine's fascination with fireworks has not always delighted his family. He is seldom home on holidays, he says. His wife, Patricia, was born on July 2.

"That always puts me in the doghouse," he says.

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