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Skyrockets in flight

If you've seen a professional fireworks display in Greater Rochester, chances are it was a production of Young Explosives of Canandaigua.


They weren’t hard to spot. Four guys unloaded incendiary devices out of a black van parked behind Frontier Field. To my relief, the vehicle was emblazoned with the words Young Explosives, the name of our hometown fireworks company. The small team was preparing for the choreographed music-and-fireworks show that happens at the end of each Red Wings minor league baseball game.

If you’ve seen a professional fireworks display in Rochester or within a good distance around us, that show was probably staged by Young Explosives of Canandaigua. Started in 1949 by Robert Young, the company does about 500 shows a year ranging all over New York State, New Jersey, and northern Pennsylvania. “It’s in the family,” says current owner Jim Young, whose son also works in the company.

Fireworks are a mandatory part of an Amer ican summer. So ingrained are they in our culture that, even before the Revolutionary War, John Adams once described to his wife Abigail a vision of American independence celebrations, “with pomp and parade … bonfires and illu- minations [fireworks] … from one end of this continent to the other.” These days, the correct handling of charcoal, sulfur, and potassium nitrate—otherwise known by the giggle-inducing moniker saltpeter—is more sophisticated than then-future President Adams could have predicted.

Though some displays still require close quarters and hands-on firing, much of the business of a modern fireworks display can, and must, be done in the safety of an office, with technicians on computers planning every last detail of a show to be performed via Wi-Fi command. What our founding fathers might have envisioned as a spontaneous pan-continental cele- bration can now be synchronized from a single room.

Pyrotechnician Steve Kaminski sets up the wiring system for a Red Wings baseball game fireworks show while coworker Chris Atkins reviews the firing sequence that will synchronize the launches with music.

Regardless of the how they are triggered, fireworks shows include the dangerous business of actually wiring explosives to their charges. Steve Kaminski, the team’s lead, will do this same type of setup forty or more times this season for small shows, like the Red Wings, and also much bigger ones. When he’s not launching explosives for others’ amusement, he works as a maintenance engineer at a local machine shop.

Kaminski later confides to me that there’s “nothing glamorous” about what he does. “You pretty much set everything up, fire it off, and go home,” he says. This is the humility of a working man who, despite his modesty, has not forgotten how cool this really is. I mean, he blows shit up—to the beat of music, no less—and collects a paycheck. Then, he goes home. Rock stars do that.

Kaminski’s demurring is reserved for himself. He is very proud of the toys that make the show work. A nondescript orange box that might as easily house a bunch of drill bits on any construction site contains the wiring system that ultimately ignites each individual rocket or firing array. Several orange boxes connect more fireworks, and all of them communicate wirelessly with a black box that serves as both firing sequencer and MP3 player for music heard throughout the stadium. The control box also verifies a closed circuit for each munition.

The show was designed by Kaminski based on the choice of music selected by stadium offi- cials. He shows me the firing sequence sheets that indicate which fireworks go in which ports in which orange box, which fireworks will be fired when, and the interval of seconds between each firing sequence. In years past, choreographic fireworks used to require that Kaminski and Nick Sciarratta, the field office director playing the music, be in constant contact via CB radio. Today, the little black box does everything. 

With all this precision and preprogramming, I feel compelled to ask the unpleasant: Have there ever been any accidents?

“I’ve never really seen anything too major,” says Chris Atkins, a software engineer for whom fireworks are a twenty-show-a-year passion. “The worst thing is, I think, seeing a few things start on fire.” He pats the obviously new, unpainted exterior of one of the boxes used to house fireworks as they fire.

“That’s why this is here,” he says with a smile.

None of which is to say that the job is entirely safe. I am reminded of this as I foolishly lean over a box full of explosive gunpowder aimed straight at my face to observe some trivial detail of their work. My father, who so patiently taught me gun safety as a child, would not be proud.

Firing off major shows like Henrietta’s Fourth of July requires the hands-on firing that our Founders would have recognized, but at a frantic pace. The trouble is that you may not see the flaming debris falling down on your back from one rocket as you lean down to light the next one. Considering the experience as he talks, it isn’t hard to see the relish in Atkins’s eyes when he says, “it is … intense.”

Here at Frontier Field, the munitions are considerably smaller. The result is much lower fireworks that don’t risk getting blown into the stands or out into the streets. This evening’s show features about 250 pounds of explosives. That sounds like a lot, but it’s peanuts compared to the shows that feature boomers with twenty-six inch diameters. Now, that is a big show!

Comedian George Carlin once noted that America is alone among nations in having a national anthem that features explosions—and this company makes sure that audiences have a good time while they celebrate “the rocket’s red glare and bombs bursting in air.”

“Really, it’s about the entertainment,” says Jim Young, when I ask what keeps the business going. “Some people use a guitar,” he says with an audible grin, “We use fireworks.”

Like I said, rock stars do this. 

Tom Belknap is a writer, musician, and developer who lives and works in the Rochester area. His blog, DragonFlyEye.Net, explores science and technology news in upstate New York.

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