Decatur fireworks display takes work and careful planning
DECATUR, Jul 05, 2012 (Herald & Review - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
When fireworks began to bloom over the waterfront of Lake Decatur on Wednesday evening, James Schiffer was one of only a few people who could be found at what was a decidedly "unsafe distance."
Rather than taking in the spectacle from a boat, dock or park like thousands of Decatur residents, Schiffer was in the most improbable place: on the floating fireworks barge itself, loaded down with thousands of dollars and thousands of pounds of explosives.
"We're sitting over there on the barge in a little plywood box with a sheet of Plexiglas in it so we can see what's going on," said Schiffer, an employee of Mad Bomber Fireworks, which provided the Decatur Park District's annual Fourth of July pyrotechnics. "Every shell's got a wire on it that hooks to the switchbox, and I work that box. You have to know exactly what all of the shells are, so when you shoot them off you're not putting all of the same effects or colors into the air at one time."
In a sense, that responsibility makes Schiffer a pyrotechnics choreographer of sorts. After receiving a master list of every mortar and repeating shell at his disposal, a technician like Schiffer designs an overall show, about 25 minutes long, in the case of Decatur's. They use professional-grade shells that are exponentially more powerful than the consumer fireworks sold in states such as Indiana, which are illegal in Illinois.
"This stuff is just more explosive; there's more powder in it, they use much larger shells, they have different colors and they fly higher," Schiffer said. "The maximum amount of gunpowder in a consumer, multi-shell repeater is like 500 grams. A single one of these shells can have up to two pounds of powder in it. Not done right, that will kill you. Not just blow your fingertip off, kill you."
As such, the power of the fireworks is treated with great respect by Schiffer and his crew of three, which includes his wife and several longtime friends. Despite the strength of the explosives they work with, they do not typically find themselves in any real danger.
"I have a family at home, and every show I go to, I leave at the end of the night and go home to see my kids," the technician said. "Realistically, I have a better chance of getting hit by a drunken driver leaving the fireworks show than I do actually getting injured on the barge as long as we follow our precautions. We're a family here, and we watch out for each other."
Becky Newton, the park district's Director of Recreation and Facilities, said the group was brought back after the success of last year, and that the fireworks show has always served as the nightcap to all of the organization's Fourth of July activities. This year, Nelson Park played host to the Staley Firecracker Road Run on Wednesday morning followed by the second Richie Hammel Fore on the Floor Car Show in the afternoon and the Decatur Park Singers Concert in the Park leading up to the fireworks.
"We had a great response to the show last year," said Newton, who oversaw her fourth summer of Independence Day events for the park district. "You can't have a Fourth of July without fireworks. There are always a ton of people out on boats to watch them, plus all the thousands who are in the park or dockside."
The afternoon of Independence Day celebration went on in spite of blazing, more than 100-degree temperatures at times, which were unable to quell the enthusiasm of those participating in events like the car show. Newton believes the tradition of spending the afternoon lakeside in Decatur preempts almost any weather concerns.
"I think Fourth of July in Decatur is a mid-summer family tradition with a lot of history," she said. "People remember coming down as kids to the fireworks and they bring their own kids down to pack their picnics, enjoy a great fireworks show and spend a day near the water."
Decatur residents in attendance did their best to stay in the shade for the most part, discussing the finer points of their classic cars while waiting for the evening's entertainment. Peoria resident and Decatur native Daniel Shockey was displaying his vintage Triumph Spitfire beside his friend's Austin-Healy sports car, and said he was looking forward to the night's show.
"We were here last year and it was really hot then too," Shockey said. "They should just rename this the '100-degree car show.' I'm pretty impressed by the variety of cars that has been brought out though, there are some really nice vehicles here."
A few hundred yards away, Mount Zion resident George Farnham had brought one of the most noticeable vehicles of the afternoon, in his dilapidated, rusty, 1929 Model M Hupmobile. He demonstrated to an amazed crowd that the car was still running, which was a wonder, given its condition.
"I drove it here from Mount Zion, but people can't believe it runs," Farnham said. "A friend of mine knew of it, his brother-in-law in central Michigan owned it. I got it there out of a barn, and it hadn't been fired up in over 30 years."
Remarkably, it took relatively little work to get the Hupmobile running again, only a few basic replacements and tweaks.
"It will need a little upholstery work," Farnham joked, gesturing to the rotting, 83-year-old seats, which had long since hemorrhaged most of their original stuffing. "I want to completely restore it eventually though."
Down on the docks of the lake, Mount Zion resident Cheryl Jackson and her family were preparing for another trip out on their boat, where they intended to take in the evening's fireworks show.
"We're members of the Decatur Boat Club and we pretty much always come to see the fireworks on the lake every Fourth of July," said Jackson as her family loaded the boat. "This heat is going to keep us in the water pretty much the entire time I think. But we've been coming out here for the fireworks ever since our kids were little; it's a great way to spend the holiday."
It's families such as Jackson's who make the job of preparing such firework shows particularly rewarding for those who are behind the pyrotechnic displays.
"We're extremely proud of our shows," said Schiffer, who has now been arranging them at similar events for the past eight years. "The crowd is what lets us know when we've done a good job. We did a show last Saturday night off a dam, and we couldn't talk to each other for about 10 minutes afterward because the crowd was screaming and cheering so loud. That's what makes us want to come back and do it again."
But as always, safety will come first. Look no further than the cigarette policy of Schiffer and company.
"There's no smoking of any kind whatsoever anywhere near the barge," he said sternly. "Even if it's like 100 feet away, it had better be downwind."
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