'Firework, Not Fire Fun': The Serious Jobs Of Pyrotechnic Pros With some 50,000 fireworks going off in just 25 minutes, Macy's Fourth of July fireworks display in New York City is the biggest in the U.S. — but the task of putting it all together is even bigger.

'Firework, Not Fire Fun': The Serious Jobs Of Pyrotechnic Pros

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Tonight, Macy's presents its annual fireworks display over the East River in New York City. If you've ever seen the spectacle, you know this is a huge show. And it's even a huger show to plan, as our own James Delahoussaye found out.

JAMES DELAHOUSSAYE, BYLINE: Designing the largest fireworks show in the U.S. is like composing music.


JIM SOUZA: And I'm imagining that I'm going to start this thing off silver. And I started opening the show in a curtain of light.

DELAHOUSSAYE: Jim Souza sits at his computer.

SOUZA: And then so I would play it and push the button, and we'd have a little bit of applause.


DELAHOUSSAYE: The spreadsheet on the screen doesn't look like a giant fireworks show. But there are these tiny blue dots - annotations - thousands and thousands of them. Each represents one single fireworks effect, like a music note on a page. In Jim Souza's mind, he sees explosions.

SOUZA: The sky's the canvas, and fire is my paint.

DELAHOUSSAYE: Souza is the president of Pyro Spectaculars, a company with major street cred in the fireworks business. They've lit up the sky for Olympic opening ceremonies, the 100th anniversary for the Statue of Liberty and, yes, Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston's wedding. But their most famous work is the Macy's Fourth of July Fireworks show, a giant televised spectacle on New York City's East River.


DELAHOUSSAYE: As the smoke cleared from last year's event, it was time to start planning 2015. Souza and his brother traveled to Washington, D.C., met with event planners. They even sat in while sound engineers mixed new music.

SOUZA: It's me and my brother sitting there telling them, you know, we really like that, or maybe we can have some more cymbals here because we're going to have this great big kaboom go on that very crescendo.

DELAHOUSSAYE: Armed with a soundtrack packed with cymbals and crescendos, Souza came back to headquarters. He picks up a fireworks shell.

SOUZA: What I'm holding here in my hand, if you can imagine the size of a basketball and it's round.

DELAHOUSSAYE: It's covered in brown paper and cut in half. Inside, there are these little colored balls.

SOUZA: Each one of these stars is hand-placed. It's all handmade. It looks like giant marbles here. Then here we have a green. Then we have a yellow smile, twinkling red stars that are going to be the eyes for a happy face.

DELAHOUSSAYE: This is one shell. The Macy's show will fire off many, many shells.

SOUZA: Ten thousand different effects.

DELAHOUSSAYE: Ten thousand.

SOUZA: Times five is 50, yes.

DELAHOUSSAYE: So for one show?

SOUZA: Yes. One show - 50,000, all fired in 25 minutes.

DELAHOUSSAYE: Fifty-thousand fireworks.

SOUZA: And this is all within (snaps fingers) milliseconds. It's going to light the colored stars and push them across the sky, burst in a single color or have a transition, burn from red to white to blue or twinkle or whistle or whatever the effect is.

DELAHOUSSAYE: It all sounds really complicated, and it is. But fireworks is in Souza's blood.

SOUZA: We grew up as not just our job, that's family. That's what we've always grew up with.

DELAHOUSSAYE: At 12 years old, young Jim Souza was already working on professional firework shows. But...

SOUZA: It's called firework; it's not fire fun. And so yeah, when it's hot - it's 110 degrees and you're digging trenches - can I do something else, Dad? (Laughter) No (laughter).

DELAHOUSSAYE: Right now, in New York City, dozens of Pyro Spectacular's technicians are checking every wire, every computer connection, every shell. They have only one shot to get it right. When the sun drops, the show starts.


SOUZA: And now the sky is lit up in this beautiful - what we call golden camoras. And those are the giant weeping willow shells. They go up in the sky and come cascading down, up on the East River, and conclude this giant camora shell of Niagara Falls.


GLORIA ESTEFAN: (Singing) America.

SOUZA: It's just cool. It is the coolest thing ever.

DELAHOUSSAYE: James Delahoussaye, NPR News.

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