July 5, 2013 at 2:28 AM ET
Fourth of July fireworks give most people a rush of pyrotechnics and patriotism, but August Santore Jr. is getting something more out of this year's show in San Diego: redemption.
A year ago, San Diego's annual fireworks display, known as the Big Bay Boom, went down in infamy as the 15-second fireworks show. (Actually, it was more like 30 seconds.) The Santore family's company, Garden State Fireworks, had programmed a computer to control the firing of thousands of fireworks shells over the course of nearly 17 minutes — but a glitch mashed two data files together, creating a third file that commanded all the shells to be fired at once.
"The problem was a millisecond instruction that you couldn't see with the naked eye," Santore, Garden State's pyrotechnic team coordinator, told NBC News this week.
The so-called "Big Bay Bust" made national news, and taught Santore that technology can be as touchy as magnesium powder. "We saw the power go out at the Super Bowl. ... Cellphones still drop out every day, and the cellphone has been around for 20 years," he said. "We have to become more adept at computer troubleshooting than we would otherwise have to be. We're always at the edge."
Making up for a misfire
Last year's blowup was a rare setback for the Santore family, which has been in the fireworks business since 1890. Garden State Fireworks, based in Millington, N.J., has a long list of awards and accomplishments to its credit, including more than 25 years of Statue of Liberty fireworks for the Fourth.
Garden State is among about a dozen companies that put on large-scale fireworks displays at venues across the country. The American Pyrotechnics Association estimates that 14,000 shows are popping in the sky this July to celebrate Independence Day — and Garden State is handling several hundred of them, including San Diego's.
To make up for last year's misfire, Santore said "we're doing the show for free this year," which amounts to an estimated value of $125,000. And to make sure it doesn't happen again, Santore's team did a pre-show simulation of the entire computerized firing sequence.
The pyrotechnicians also extended the length of the show from 16.5 to 18.5 minutes. "That doesn't sound like much of a difference, but apparently in fireworks terms, that's a lot," said Tanya Castaneda, a spokeswoman for the Port of San Diego, which sponsors the Big Bay Boom. The extra time makes San Diego's show longer than another one of Garden State's marquee events for the Fourth, the 17-minute fireworks display planned for the Washington National Mall.
How fireworks work
Fireworks have been around for thousands of years, but pyrotechnicians are always looking for new tricks, or new combinations of the basics. When different metal salts burn, they produce different colors. Red comes from strontium, orange comes from calcium, yellow from sodium, green from barium, blue from copper, and silvery-white from burning aluminum, titanium or magnesium.
The artistry comes from how all those chemicals are mixed into the claylike "stars" that are carefully placed into the fireworks shells. "If you're up or down a quarter-inch or a half-inch, it matters," said August "Augie" Santore, August Jr.'s father and one of the co-owners of Garden State Fireworks. (The other co-owner is Augie's brother, Nunzio.)
Augie Santore says he has been doing his own shows since he was 12. Now he's 69. "You gotta know what you're doing," the elder Santore said. "You don't use A with B. It's like putting vinegar with oil. They don't go together."
Each year brings an assortment of new chemicals. "Some enhance burning speeds," Santore said. "Some enhance pastels."
At the same time, old chemicals have fallen out of favor. For example, hexacholorobenzene provided a surefire way to enhance the colors in a fireworks display — but it was banned from commercial use a decade ago due to its toxicity. A pigment called Paris green, also known as copper acetoarsenite, produced a pretty blue color — but had some nasty health effects.
"I was using Paris green, and it didn't kill me," Augie Santore said. "I guess something else is going to get me."
New tricks, old traditions
Santore's son had some tricks up his sleeve for this year's Big Bay Boom: new pastels to complement the traditional red, white and blue ... stars that glitter inside bright circles ... three-dimensional cubes of light that take shape in the sky.
August Santore Jr. was anxious to put on a good show, and not just because of last year's misfire.
"I think July Fourth is the last holiday we have as a nation. Someone celebrates Christmas, someone else celebrates Hanukkah. We all have our different religions, our different things. But I think on July Fourth, if you're an American, that's the day when we're really all coming together," the younger Santore said.
"It's a pretty impressive thing," he said. "We have that responsibility, and it's a great responsibility and a great honor."
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Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the NBC News Science Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding +Alan Boyle to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.