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Countdown to Baltimore's New Year's Eve fireworks display

Sunday morning was crunch time for Robert Mays and his crew packing thousands of fireworks into tall black cylinders in preparation for Monday night's annual New Year's Eve display at Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

“We’re trying to wrap up today so we can get ahead of the weather,” said the New Castle, Del., resident, who was bundled in weathered, dark-colored cotton work gear, a camouflage knit cap and work boots. His hands, which were exposed, were smudged with dirt from packing the tube-like objects.

Half of the cylinders on the 150-foot-long barge were covered with foil — indicating they were properly packed and ready to be launched. The remaining fireworks — called shells by the crew — would be packed and prepped the rest of the day in preparation for the New Year's Eve show, according to Mays.

The task was compounded by the threat of inclement weather, which was expected to begin Monday morning.

"Bring an umbrella," Mays said, adding that the crew would be on the barge during the show in a weatherproof plywood structure that would keep both them and the electronics dry.

“If it were raining right now, it would be crappy,” Mays said “We’d be under tents. But now that we have everything covered, we’re good.”

Although five men from Pyrotecnico, the Delaware-based special-effects and fireworks company that provides the fireworks display for Charm City, were working feverishly to complete the task that brisk morning, the actual process for the display started more than a month ago in Las Vegas when the show was choreographed. The fireworks and accompanying gadgets were chosen and assembled in the company's Delaware warehouse. Sunday, aboard the rectangular barge in a shipping yard in Curtis Bay, was about setting up the barge for the big display. Ultimately, all of the efforts of the workers from Pyrotecnico boil down to 16 minutes — the approximate length of the display.

"There's a lot more behind the scenes, said Corey Trott, a former worker at a now-shuttered Pennsylvania youth detention center who has worked with Pyrotecnico for the past four years. "It's a two-day set-up. It's a lot of work for a 15- or 20-minute show."

Although it's almost impossible to count attendance for the event — the last official study conducted by the Baltimore Office of Promotion & The Arts reported that attendance was around 40,000 people — the event remains a popular one among residents.

"We try and make every effort to make it special," said Tracy Baskerville, communications director for Baltimore Office of Promotion & The Arts, the producer of the festivities.

The night starts at 9 p.m., with a performance by Thunderball, a Baltimore-based band who will perform at the Inner Harbor Amphitheater. Mayor Catherine E. Pugh will count down to 2019, with the midnight fireworks to follow.

Only twice since 1977 have the fireworks been postponed — in 1989 and 2008 — due to weather, according to Baskerville. In that case, the fireworks will be set off the following day at 7 p.m.

"Right now, we're not anticipating it," Baskerville said Saturday afternoon. "The event is weather-dependent. But the fireworks can go in the rain."

Baskerville said she most looks forward to the 30 minutes leading up to midnight.

"People come out of nowhere," she explained. "It's the anticipation of people blowing their horns getting ready for the New Year. They are ready to go."

Trott said his favorite part of the fireworks is the reaction from the crowd.

"When you get that crowd reaction, you know you've done something," he said. "I love the oohs and ahs. That's satisfying."

Mays said that the finale of the show never gets old.

“I still like the big stuff. The big shells that break and hit you in the chest,” said Mays, who has been working in the business since he was 18. “It’s got the punch.”

john-john.williams@baltsun.com

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