Every pyrotechnician dreams about those rare shoots. The kind where everything just falls into place. The truck arrives on time, the show is packed perfectly, the crew is enthusiastic and well rested. Racks seem to glide off the truck as the beautiful summer sun washes over the shoot site, punctuated by a gentle, refreshing breeze. The air is full of jokes and laughter as the crew runs on auto pilot, allowing plenty of time to enjoy a leisurely lunch. The cables have no tangles and as the last of the wires are plugged in, a feeling of calm washes over the crew. The firing system communicates with every module on the first try, displaying perfect continuity without any adjustments. Even the power tools are in on it, refusing to let their batteries die after hours of use. Every piece of the puzzle seems to fall into place and by the early afternoon, the show is ready to shoot, leaving hours of standby time. As the sun sets, the crew enjoys a peaceful summer evening in anticipation of a fantastic fireworks display.
Pyromania 2016, unfortunately, was not one of those dream shoots.
In keeping with the tradition of exceptionally difficult fireworks events in the summer of 2016, Pyromania was instead an exercise in enduring as much rain as can possibly fall in a three day period, followed by a spectacularly aggravating abundance of mud. Just as dirt covered every single surface at PGI convention a few weeks prior, mud was the apparel of choice at Pyromania.
Pyromania, formerly known as the St. Louis Shoot, has been entertaining crowds with some of the finest pyromusical displays in the nation every September for over a decade. What started as a small gathering of pyrotechnic enthusiasts from the St. Louis area has morphed into one of the largest fireworks events in the USA. Originally conceived as a chance for local pyrotechnic hobbyists to get together and exchange ideas, Pyromania has steadily grown into a multi-day fireworks festival, featuring demos, competitions, and massive fireworks displays from pyrotechnicians around the country.
Pyromania offers the unique opportunity for professionals and amateurs alike to turn their visions into pyrotechnic realities by bringing together a great venue, a massive number of pyrotechnic enthusiasts, and generous sponsorships from some of the finest fireworks suppliers in the business. These ingredients, along with the tireless efforts of the event’s organizers, have spawned an impressive line-up of fireworks presentations, all while raising money for the local Pawstoppers K-9 charity.
In 2012, Pyromania cemented its place as a premiere pyrotechnic event with the addition of the prestigious Pro-Am competition, attracting some of the best show designers in the nation to compete against one another in a three way 1.4G pyromusical contest. The two night event features product demos and a blind pyro competition on Friday followed by a mass launch, the Pro-Am Competition, and a full line up of professional displays that are open to the public on Saturday night.
Located at Brookdale Farms just 20 minutes west of Downtown St. Louis in Eureka, MO, Pyromania offers some of the best entertainment in the region and is a must see event for anyone who is even remotely interested in fireworks.
Innovative Pyrotechnic Concepts (IPC), a display company from Southern Maryland, was honored with the closing show on Saturday night. Founded just a couple of years ago by my good friend Tim Jameson, a former Pro-Am champion, IPC has already earned the reputation of putting on some of the finest fireworks displays in the Mid-Atlantic region. Having had several conversations with Tim in the weeks leading up to the event, I was eager to see his vision come alive in front of the Pyromania crowd.
Tim’s week in St. Louis began well ahead of schedule with a Tuesday departure on the 900 mile trek from southern Maryland to Eureka, MO. Unfortunately, the journey was rudely interrupted only 100 yards from its final destination when the entire fleet of IPC trucks and trailers got stuck in the mud immediately upon arrival to the shoot site on Wednesday afternoon. Somewhere around this time, things took a turn for the worse. That afternoon turned into a mad scramble to rent or borrow every light weight 4×4 vehicle or skid loader with tracks in the area, followed by an expensive 50 foot tow to drier climates. With the fireworks and equipment conveniently parked on a small gravel road several hundred feet from where they needed to be, Tim and his crew decided to retire for the evening and enjoy a relaxing night of sleep at the local Drury Inn.
On Thursday morning, after determining that the field was somehow even muddier and more slippery than the day before, the IPC crew sprang into action. Armed with a massive fleet of one skid loader and an ATV pulling a small flatbed trailer, the team began the speedy process of swiftly transporting one pallet of racks at a time, several hundred feet, through a muddy, waterlogged field full of mosquitos, biting flies, and a delicate yet pungent poo smell. Through sheer determination and will, the racks were finally set and screwed together after what should have been a three hour job was finally completed in 10 torturous hours. Tim and his crew, soaked from the knees down, battling sheer exhaustion, trench foot, and probably the Zika virus, were now tasked with loading 1000 shells, plugging in 2000 cues, and hooking up 84 modules in only two days.
And then it started to rain.
By Friday morning, the shoot site had already accumulated standing water. And then it rained some more. Tucked under canopies and any other cover they could find, the IPC crew took the opportunity to get organized and prepare all of their shells. Just outside the tent, a steady stream of rain fell from the sky. Each shell was ematched, labeled, and sorted into its proper box for easier loading. Meanwhile it rained. The crew then organized all of the equipment needed to load the show, carefully addressing and kitting the modules, cables, and rails. Throughout the process, cloud after cloud poured rain onto the field. Finally, they took a break. It rained. They had dinner. It rained. They went to bed. Still raining.
I called Tim Friday night to confirm the event had not been cancelled due to the rain.
“We’re going to shoot it,” he muttered.
“Alright, I’m getting up at four and driving down to help you get this thing done,” I replied.
Shortly after, my good friend Karl Maerz called me to see how I was doing. I told him about the situation in St. Louis and without hesitation, he offered help.
“Timmy needs help. Pick me up on the way down. As long as we are back Sunday afternoon I’m good to go,” said Karl.
And with that, Karl and I, up before the sun, drove from Chicago to St. Louis to help Tim load his show.
By Saturday morning, close to five inches of rain had fallen over Brookdale Farms, turning the already muddy field into some sort of swampy marshland worthy of anacondas, alligators, and other Cajun delights. Everything and everyone was completely covered in mud. It was impossible to step on any surface without sliding uncontrollably or losing a shoe. Even the delicate poo smell had become a more robust, raw feces odor emanating from every corner of the bog.
What followed was as close to a miracle as I had ever seen at a fireworks display. Through sheer tyranny of will, Tim Jameson and the IPC crew proceeded to load all of the items in the display, including one of the most massive finales I had ever seen. Shell after shell, chain after chain, and module after module were loaded and wired, including several hundred shells that required bagging to protect them from water that had seeped through the bottom of the mortars. The team paused for only 30 minutes to eat lunch and then dove right back to work. Thousands of feet of wire were unspooled, including several comical trips across a pond in a canoe to run the trunk lines back to the firing table. By six o’clock, just under 2000 cues were loaded and the modules were all connected.
At this point, the display truly became a challenge when 19 of the 84 StarFire modules began exhibiting symptoms of intermittent communications. With the StarFire Firing System, what this usually means is that there are simply too many modules on a trunk line and that the system can’t receive a strong enough signal from modules to verify that they are there. After over an hour of frantic trouble shooting, and a perfect storm of controllers with low batteries, malfunctioning communications channels, and not enough wire or time to run new trunks, Tim proposed a solution.
“What if I just take this controller to the backfield, hook it up back there to cut down on the length of wire, leave the modules up here connected and running on another controller with audio timecode, and do a 3,2,1 go countdown to start manual timecode back there?”
He asked with a look that indicated he was proceeding with the plan regardless of my answer.
“That’ll work. The timing might be off, but that’ll work,” I answered.
“We’re doing it,” replied Tim, adding a bit of colorful language as the 100th cigarette of the day dangled from his lips.
With that, Tim entered the live shoot site and began pulling wires back across the pond between displays as I freed them from the shoot table and ran the 24 modules in front of the pond with another StarFire controller.
Nervously, I listened to Tim’s radio chatter as I watched show after show fill the sky with thick, lingering smoke. The humidity and moisture from three days of rain, combined with low wind, had created the world’s largest fog machine, making entire fireworks shows disappear after only a minute or so of firing. Finally, the message I was waiting for came over the radio.
“I’ve got all the modules. I’m programming them now.”
I quite literally began to dance as we were now ready to fire the display only 20 minutes before show time. At this point, most of the evening’s fireworks had already been fired and the finale was quickly approaching with only one more show to go before the big IPC finish. After yet another beautiful but smoke filled exhibition of pyrotechnics, I had what might be the most memorable exchange of my life.
“Hey Tim, you are up next. Are you good to go?” I asked into the radio.
“Yeah, give me a minute, I can’t find the controller in all of this smoke,” Tim replied.
“He can’t find the controller. He needs a minute,” I yelled out to the Pyromania coordinators. Without skipping a beat, they nodded and had the DJ play an extra song to fill time as we waited for Tim to find his way through the smoke.
Several minutes later, we confirmed that both controllers were loaded and ready and with crossed fingers and a hope for the best, I counted down over the radio and pushed play for the audio.
What followed was absolutely incredible. The display was synched up perfectly. Every comet, mine, and shell was firing on the beat, just as Tim had designed it. None of the rain, exhaustion, mud lack of wire, lack of time, and lack of sleep were remotely visible in the show. It was simply precision and excellence in pyrotechnic form. It was truly an amazing achievement.
Unfortunately, a few minutes in, much of the display became invisible as the most massive wall of smoke of the evening began to form. Although much of the show was lost in the fog, the creativity, and certainly the massive finale, still came across to the delight of the crowd.
After the crowds had thinned and the mortars cooled down, we finally had a moment to sit down, get some food, and reflect on what had occurred over the last few days. It was during that hour around the table that I realized just how lucky we are. Tim and his crew had just been through hell. They were wet, exhausted, hungry, and covered in mud. And yet, the only noise that could be heard was sarcasm and laughter. It was genuinely one of the best times I’ve ever had with fireworks.
It sounds crazy, I know. Wake up at four AM, drive five hours to work a 14 hour day in some of the nastiest conditions possible, and then sleep a few hours and head back home. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.
So while the show itself wasn’t one of those rare shoots we all dream about, Pyromania 2016 was one of those incredible get togethers that we don’t have to dream about. By all accounts, it was a disaster, but it is still one of the most joyous experiences of the summer. Because even when we get rained on, flooded, or even struck by lightning, we still belong to the greatest community on earth. We are pyros. And there is nothing that can take that away.
Myself, Tim Jameson, and Innovative Pyrotechnic Concepts would like to thank the coordinators of Pyromania for volunteering to do this year after year. Although it was a challenging event, they really went above and beyond as they always do to make it happen.
For more information about Pyromania, please visit www.pyromaniaevent.com
For more information about Innovative Pyrotechnic concepts, please visit https://www.facebook.com/ipcdisplays/
We also owe a MASSIVE thank you to Dominator Fireworks for providing a huge donation to the IPC display. Dominator Fireworks have been nothing but generous in their support of Pyromania, PGI, and many other regional events. To check out their fantastic line of product, please visit www.dominatorfireworks.com