“I just want to thank all of you for your incredible dedication to the show. It’s been a hell of a week and I don’t know why you guys keep showing up, but I really can’t thank you enough. I owe all of you my life. Thank you.”
So went my toast on Friday night, August 12th at the El Bracero Mexican restaurant in LaPorte, Indiana. About a dozen of us, the Revolution Pyro team, who I lovingly refer to as the best crew in pyro, were sitting around a massive table enjoying a delicious, relaxing meal. It was the first and only dinner of the week that wasn’t eaten outside, in a camper, or under a pop up canopy in 100 degree heat. It was also the only meal that wasn’t covered in dirt and dust as soon as the plate arrived.
The Pyrotechnics Guild International had commissioned us to shoot the Grand Public Display at the 2016 Convention held at the LaPorte County Fairgrounds. Myself and my business partner, Jim McCulla, jumped at the opportunity to design and shoot what is the highest honor at the PGI. After an entire week of fireworks competitions, seminars, and incredible displays, we were the closing act; the grand finale that everyone looks forward to throughout the convention.
It was a fantastic break for Revolution Pyro to be able to put on such a show in only our first year in business. As is our mission, we pushed our limits by designing a 3800 cue show that used devices ranging from half second gerbs to 12 inch shells spanning 700 feet of width and 1200 feet of depth, creating a massive footprint on the ground and in the sky. We had stands, towers, girandolas, fireballs, five finale positions, seven frontage positions, 11 shell positions, 21 single shot positions, 25 proximate positions, 195 StarFire firing system modules, and almost 13,000 feet of wire linking it all together.
The display was also highly experimental in that it was completely story driven. The concept behind it was an artificial intelligence that is capable of designing its own displays which then becomes self-aware. I opted to include narration, a risky element that can make or break a display, as well as a distinct music selection and change of pace intended to support and help drive the story. We were all quite excited to finally see it after all of our hard work.
I couldn’t help beaming with pride as we all sat together at the restaurant, telling stories and laughing about all of the shenanigans we had gone through that week. Revolution Pyro truly took on one of the most challenging, if not the most challenging productions that the PGI had ever seen. To say we were exhausted would be the understatement of the century. The night prior, we worked until 2 AM setting out our single shot positions trying to beat the heat of the day. Most of us had been on site since the previous Thursday. For eight days straight we had been battling 90 degree temperatures, 100 degree heat indexes, and unbearable humidity as storm after storm broke up just before reaching LaPorte. Not to mention the fact that the beautiful, grassy field that was supposed to be our shoot site had been tilled a couple weeks prior and transformed into a vast expanse of dirt, dust, and more dirt.
After only minutes in the field, we were left looking like coal miners, completely covered in a layer of dirt and grime. There was dirt on our cars, dirt on our tools, dirt in our clothes, dirt in our drinks, dirt in our food and dirt in our lungs. Every time a vehicle passed by the shoot site, a massive plume of dust swelled over the field, covering everything in its path with a fresh coating of more lovely, grimy, sticky Indiana dirt. It was like shooting a show on a Martian landscape and it made progress slow and tensions high. We all just wanted to finish the job, shoot the show, and go home to our families and air conditioning.
And yet, here we were, smiling, laughing, and enjoying each others company. It was such a welcome relief to not have to be anywhere for a few hours and just enjoy a meal. It made the pina coladas and margaritas taste that much sweeter knowing what we had been through as a team. It was an honor just to be able to share a table with these people, truly some of the most incredible souls one will ever encounter. We were a rag tag team of mostly hobbyist pyros that were creating something truly incredible.
“It looks like we all made the right choice,” I said with a grin as it began to rain just outside our window. We were scheduled to shoot the Grand Public Display that night, Friday, August 12th. Earlier that afternoon, The PGI safety team had determined that the wind conditions combined with the chance of thunderstorms was justification enough to delay the display until the following night. It was one of only three times that the PGI convention opted for the Saturday rain delay in its 30+ year history. It was not a popular decision as most convention attendees were heading home Saturday and would miss the display that they had been waiting all week to see. Once the decision was made, we decided to take advantage of our night off and take the team out for a civilized meal. Our nervous tension was finally broken as the perfectly calm evening finally gave way to the rain we had based our decision on.
Steadily the rain began to pick up. Then lightning flashed in the distance, followed by thunder and confirming that this was not just a passing rain cloud and we weren’t all wasting our time. There was an actual storm system in the area that would have made shooting the display terribly uncomfortable for the crowd and potentially hazardous for the crew.
It was then that I made what might have been the biggest mistake of my career. As I steadily made my way through a third margarita, and as the sky opened up into a thunderous downpour, I stood up to high five the crew.
“Haha! We made the right choice! There’s no way we could shoot in this!” I exclaimed in excitement. Little did I know that this action was being observed by the Pyro Gods and pissed them off something wicked. What followed was the most trying 72 hours I have ever had on a fireworks shoot site. It turns out the eight days of heat, humidity, and dust were just a warm up for what was to come.
The first phone call came at 9:29 PM. It was from Aaron Enzer, the owner of ACE Pyro and StarFire Firing systems, the very generous sponsor of the firing system for our entire display and a good friend.
I eagerly answered, still excited that our rain delay had been the correct choice. “We made the right decision!” I exclaimed into the phone.
“Did you see what just happened?” he asked. I could hear a bit of concern in his voice.
“No, I am offsite with my crew. We are finally enjoying a relaxing dinner after a long week.” I replied.
“Okay, so you are off site. Okay. Well, there was a bit of an incident.”
I pictured some kind of accident at the PGI site. Did someone crash their car in this rain storm? Is a building being flooded? Are our campers floating away?
“Everyone is safe, no one was hurt, but there was a lighting strike. It hit the field just a few minutes ago and a lot of fireworks went off for a few minutes,” said Aaron.
I paused, a look of confusion on my face.
“Wait, what happened?” I asked.
“The shoot site was struck by lighting and it set off a bunch of fireworks. We are not sure if it’s your show or the other shows, but it looked like a lot of product. No one was hurt, but I just wanted to let you know,” he explained.
“Well…hmmm….shit…okay,” I responded.
The call waiting tone lit up on my phone. It was Bryan Szajko, the manager of RKM Fireworks, another good friend and very generous sponsor that was providing racks for our display.
“Okay, well, what’s going on? Is everyone okay?” I asked Aaron.
“Everyone is fine. We have no way of assessing the damage yet. They have evacuated the field. We are all meeting in the Afterglow building. I just wanted to make you aware that there was a lighting strike and some of your show may have gone off,” he said.
“Okay, well thank you for the call. Shit. I guess we will see what happens,” I replied. “I will see you at the Afterglow.”
I took a moment to explain what Aaron said to my crew’s disbelief and immediately called Bryan back. Just as he began to explain, another call came in from Craig, one of the production staff at PGI shortly followed by Ruth, one of the safety team members. I watched as everyone’s phones at the table began to light up with texts and calls. The story was the same from everyone. No one was hurt. Lighting had struck the field, a lot of fireworks went off, there was certainly damage but there was no way to tell how much.
Instantly, I sobered up as I was filled with the emptiest, most sinking feeling I have ever had in my years of shooting fireworks. All I could picture was eight days of work on site, gone with a furious flash of lightning. A week of show design. A week of preparation before we left. Thousands of hours of work. An entire PGI convention sacrificed by so many members of our crew. Literal blood, sweat, and tears, not to mention the $80,000 worth of StarFire gear in the field that I couldn’t help picture as 195 little piles of molten aluminum. I leaned against a booth and crouched down for a moment to gather my thoughts. Without more information, there was nothing we could do. There was no sense in speculating. Whatever happened, we just needed to assess, decide, and act accordingly.
We quickly left the restaurant and made our way back to the fairgrounds in an absolute downpour. Knowing the field was closed off and the roads were already washing away, we went straight to the Afterglow to see what we could find out. For those unfamiliar, the Afterglow is a large gathering of PGI members that takes place after the shows each night. Although there were no shows that evening, the Afterglow was acting as a sort of storm shelter full of free beer. It made for a nice sanctuary.
The reaction when we walked in wasn’t terribly reassuring. Looks of sorrow and an endless line of “I’m so sorry” made for a surreal experience. Some even offered hugs. It felt like we had walked into our own funeral. Several members had been near the field when the lighting struck and got a front row view of the action. It is a unique opportunity to hear master pyrotechnicians describe a scenario that had never been seen before. One member even had a video of the fireworks going off. I could tell from the video that the majority of the product was not ours, but there was still quite a bit that had gone off. As we discussed the situation, one thing was clear: although safety procedures during a lightning storm were always taught, no one had ever actually witnessed or heard of such an occurrence actually happening. Regardless of the outcome, this event would become an industry example.
The exhaustion and disbelief soon gave way to a night of restless sleep. At first light we approached the field to assess the damage. Fortunately, the dust that had been the bane of our existence for over a week was gone. Unfortunately, it had morphed into a layer of the slickest, stickiest mud imaginable. No trucks or cars of any kind could get into the field and even walking through the shoot site posed a challenge as our boots were immediately caked with pounds of mud.
It was a rather surreal experience. The dust bowl of the week prior was now a vast, barren landscape of black sludge. Ten hours of unrelenting rain had buried much of our electronics beneath a layer of muck. Even our rack positions had started to sink into the earth. Every position had at least a shell or two that had fired in the lightning strike with no particular pattern to the chaos. We had taken extra precautions throughout the week to thoroughly foil and cover our racks in to protect from rain and fallout. Luckily it held up, leaving perfect, round openings wherever an item had fired.
Cakes made up most of our losses. The frontage positions had suffered the majority of the damage, leaving a pile of wet, spent cakes and some empty single shot comets behind along with almost all of the strobe pots in the display. Unfortunately, several 10 and 12 inch shells had fired in the lighting fiasco as well, leaving our mortars empty and floating in a muddy pit. Luckily, upon visual inspection, the StarFire system appeared to be fine, with no signs of burned modules or wires.
We quickly took inventory of what was missing and began to replace what we could out of our remaining products. We had duplicates of a few cakes on hand and several of the single shot items were replaced. PGI is also perhaps the only place in the world where extra 10 and 12 inch shells become available thanks to the generous contributions of the All Stars and other members.
Our crew, expecting to tear down from the night before, sprang into action putting out our remaining towers, positions, and modules. Another team replaced the fireworks that had been discharged the night prior. As a safety precaution, all actual pyrotechnic devices were disconnected from the StarFire modules as we began running communications checks. A huge sense of relief washed over me as the majority of our set up was functional, testing just as it had the day before. We ended up replacing less than a dozen unresponsive modules in the field with spares. Some modules struggled to communicate and some were completely shorted out.
Final continuity checks proved to be a challenge as we factored for missing products and adjusted the firing script accordingly. With one final pop up rainfall, just after I had requested plastic be removed from our proximate positions, we were ready to fire a massive display that had quite literally been struck by lighting the night prior.
Unfortunately, those that were able to stay for the display did not get to see much of it. Saturday night ended up being a rather humid evening with absolutely no wind and most of our show was obscured by a massive wall of smoke.
The next day proved to be no picnic either, as we were left with just four crew members to clean up a massive mess. The day was spent scraping mud off of all the electronic components and calling in reinforcements to help us tear down on Monday. The field was still too slick to drive our truck onto, and as if on cue, local tornado sirens began blaring as a funnel cloud formed over our heads. Clearly the pyro gods were not finished with us.
On Monday, August 15th, we were finally able to get our racks out of the field. What was expected to be a clear day turned into a flood advisory by 11 AM, giving way to 10 straight hours of rain. The last of our equipment turned into a wet, muddy mess as we finished loading that evening. It wasn’t until Tuesday, August 16th that our last trailer left the LaPorte County Fairgrounds.
Although far from a pleasant experience, the 2016 PGI convention was certainly unforgettable. I am extremely proud of our crew and the volunteers that stepped up to make such a challenging display a reality for us. We might have been a bit knocked down on this one, but it will not stop Revolution Pyro from pushing the boundaries with newer, better, and bigger fireworks displays in the future. This is only the beginning. Watch out Mother Nature. You keep it up and we will shoot back.
As always, thank you for reading! I’d like give props to Great Lakes Fireworks and RKM Fireworks, both of whom were scheduled to shoot a show the same night as us. Both companies, especially Great Lakes, also overcame some challenges to put on spectacular displays and it was an honor to share the field with them. I’d also like to thank the following sponsors of the Grand Public Display. These companies continue to provide unrelenting support and displays at PGI events are not possible without them.
RKM Fireworks – Wholesaler of 1.3G and 1.4G Consumer Fireworks as well as displays throughout the Midwest. The largest selection of Dominator Fireworks in the world!
ACE Pyro – Wholesaler of 1.3G and 1.4G Consumer Fireworks as well as displays. Wholesale equipment and black powder sales are available as well. Their live online inventory makes shopping a breeze!
StarFire Firing Systems – Hands down the greatest dollar for dollar firing system of all time. Fully digital. Manual, sequenced, and fully scripted displays, all for less than $20 per cue! And it runs on scab wire!
MJG Technologies – Reliable ematches from a company located right here in the USA! Try their new, unregulated iMatch!
Casabella Fireworks – Wholesaler of 1.3G and 1.4G Consumer Fireworks as well as displays throughout Indiana and Kentucky. Great selection, incredible service!
Capitol Pyro/Innovative Pyrotechnic Concepts – Wholesaler of 1.3G and 1.4G fireworks as well as displays in the Mid Atlantic region. These guys know their stuff!
Dominator Fireworks – Chinese supplier of fantastic Consumer, 1.4 Pro, and display fireworks. You’ve seen their shows, now try their fireworks!