In late May, after baseball and the blasts of complimentary fireworks that opened nearly overhead, the pedestrian bridge to Pittsburgh, temporarily closed, compresses our crowd of late-night walkers. Someone next to my family mentions the latest terror, children and their mothers pierced by an explosion of glittering spikes after a pop star’s concert in England. Faces of young girls illuminate two nearby phones. Ahead of us a father believes his arms have invented safety, yet somewhere, he must recognize, terror dreams our bodies as it decides the exact address for delight. The river’s cruise ship passes beneath us, its decks packed with prom-goers. The water reflects a swirl of pinwheels; a vendor ignites a fistful of sparklers.
For seven summers, the evening of the Fourth of July, I wrote my name in the air with a sparkler. Sometimes I circled them into brief, eclipsed suns or simply threw their violent lace into an arc that spiraled sparks to our lawn. Always, July 5th, I had to find every sparkler gone out and dropped the night before. Up and back, I paced our yard along the narrow paths the mower took. If there was even a hint of leftover nub on a wire, I tried to light it, but none ever burst into sparks. I threw away those wires and never once thought to learn what a sparkler was made of.
A sparkler is usually made from a wire coated from one end with a mixture of metal fuel, an oxidizer, and a binder. The most commonly used wire is made of iron and is most often coated in aluminum and magnesium for a yellow/white glow. The fuel is charcoal and sulfur, as in black powder. The binder can be sugar or starch. Mixed with water, these chemicals form a slurry that can be coated on the wire. Once dried, it is a sparkler, some as large as three feet in length in order to burn for several minutes to produce a long-lasting effect. They are non-poisonous if sucked on, but poisonous if eaten, causing gastrointestinal symptoms.
Sitting beside my son, I once watched a videotape of the beginning of a rock show at a Rhode Island club called The Station. The room in which a crowd was packed to hear a band called Great White looked so eerily familiar, it could have been one of the clubs I’d watched my son play lead guitar in for the previous three years. I remembered only “Once Bitten, Twice Shy,” the band’s biggest hit, but my son and I were paying attention to the pyrotechnics they were using, surges of sparks ascending as they began playing. “This is real bad,” my son said, just home from touring in most of the venues Great White had played in the weeks leading to this show. He sounded thoroughly spooked. “Using pyro in places like this is crazy,” he said, and watching that film, I couldn’t argue. Those white-hot sparks set the back wall on fire, the flames running up to the low ceiling and spreading rapidly. “Somebody fucked up bad,” my son added as the camera, seconds later, shut off. “Even you would know not to use it. There’s no way you can miss the danger.”
Typical pyrotechnics are made from flammable materials such as nitrocellulose and black powder or a mixture of fuel and oxidizer. A plug placed at one end of the container with a small orifice, called a choke, constricts the expulsion of the ignited pyrotechnic compound, increasing the size and aggressiveness of the jet.
When I was five years old, there was a fire in the back room of the bakery my father had purchased less than a year before. “Sparks from an electrical short in the old blue refrigerator that came with the place,” my father said. “Hot enough to catch something that burns and there you have it, the place up in smoke.” The fire was contained, but it took six weeks to make enough repairs to the back room and the roof to reopen. All of that work was done in the middle of winter. For nearly all of those six weeks the blackened refrigerator sat in the snow behind the bakery. In late January, he baked a cake for a small celebration of reopening. My mother placed one small sparkler candle in the center, and I watched until it went out, wishing for more.
I’ve learned that four-inch cake sparklers burn for about thirty seconds. For birthdays, some cake sparklers are shaped as numbers. Heart-shaped sparklers are sometimes offered as favors for wedding guests. To ignite those sparklers, the guests need to light them at the top where the heart creases in. Most often, the guests are given elongated sparklers to light and hold while the newlyweds pass by. Those wedding sparklers are advertised as “dazzling,” “brilliant,” and “unforgettable.”
Witnesses describing the bomb explosion after the pop concert in England were consistent. First, the red-orange flash, then the ear-splitting boom, then the bodies falling to the ground before a plume of smoke wafted over the crowd. More than one survivor said, “All this sort of debris and embers came floating from the roof.”
I ran the Great White video again, this time remembering how I watched my son play, early in his career, from the privacy of a side room filled with piles of flammable trash, a room with exactly one way in and out. Watching closely, I checked to see which member of the band first notices the flames. It looked to be the guitar player I knew was dead. As if he was following my eyes, my son said, “It makes you think.”
A pyrotechnic engineer usually has an undergraduate degree in chemistry or physics, followed by further training in pyrotechnics. Pyrotechnic engineers might work for firework companies or sporting arenas. Because safety is a factor in their work, some states require a licensing exam.
When I was eleven, Mrs. Cellander, our next-door neighbor, watched, like I did, a great sparkling puff of newspaper lift and float into her cherry tree from the burn barrel I was tending near where our back yards bordered. She screamed and swore and reminded me I was a careless idiot who deserved to be burned if that tree was damaged. Inside the burn barrel, the fire crackled and sparked as if it wanted to soar. Illuminated by the rapidly burning paper, the cherry tree’s branches were thrown skyward like a cluster of hostages.
A spark is a simple, familiar way of describing a spangle of light.
The Great White fire, every investigator agreed, could likely have been prevented had those involved paid attention to standard safety practices around the use of pyrotechnics. Less than two years later, a similar pyrotechnic-induced fire destroyed the República Cromañón nightclub in Buenos Aires, Argentina, killing 194 people.
A spark from a firework is a particle of red-hot powder ejected from the firework container.
Two years before the Manchester, England pop concert disaster, after armed terrorists attacked Le Carillon Bar in France, witnesses said they initially thought firecrackers had gone off before they realized that they were under fire from semi-automatic rifles. “People dropped to the ground. We put a table over our heads to protect us,” said a man who was with his wife at the back of the bar. Fifteen people died in the attack on the bar and restaurant, with fifteen severely injured. More than one hundred bullets were fired.
Sparks from a sparkler are extremely hot, their temperature anywhere from 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit from to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Last year, in the United States, about 1,200 injuries that were related to sparklers were treated in emergency rooms between June 16 and July 16, what is known as the Fourth of July season. Half of those sparkler injuries happened to children under the age of fourteen.
Sparklers leave behind a residue of tiny flecks of burnt iron that is usually not even noticed. Nobody I knew as a boy ever got burned by a sparkler.
The most common categories of pyrotechnics are concussion, smoke pot, flame projector, and gerb, which is more complicated and designed to create a jet or fountain of sparks. Various ingredients are added to provide color, smoke, noise or sparks.
Ariana Grande, the headliner of the Manchester, England show that was attacked by a suicide bomber, has an enormous fan base among young girls. Video shot inside the venue for that evening’s performance showed terrified teenagers screaming as they made their way out amid a sea of pink balloons. Some fans were still wearing the singer and former Nickelodeon TV actress’ trademark kitten ears as they fled.
By the time my son and I watched the Great White video, we knew that the low ceiling in The Station had been soundproofed with cheap insulation that is not only highly flammable but produces dense, toxic smoke that roiled into the room so thoroughly poisonous those fans had maybe a minute altogether before the odds suggested they were going to die.
On a windy, late spring day when I was twelve, I let an open-pit trash fire get away behind the bakery. A couple of burning bags, sparks scattering, tumbled onto the dry, unmown grass. I watched, terrified, as the high grass caught fire and the wind drove the flames toward the bakery. By the time I circled the fire and ran for the back door, the man who lived above the feed store next door scrambled down his back stairs and used a hose he kept for washing his car to extinguish the fire just before it reached the back wall.
I ran the Great White video a third time, concentrating on the crowd. A few beer bottles are held aloft in salute to the band. The fans near the front rock in place. The wall behind the band is already on fire, yet a fan in the second row raises a fist in appreciation. One man finally turns toward the camera and gestures toward where the main door must be. Two more patrons turn as the flames reach the roof. And then the camera shuts off, the man doing the filming, I’m sure, heading for the door because it had been noted he was among the survivors.
A few months after we watched that video together, before the first time I attended one of his shows in a large arena, my son explained that I should recognize that a bright pinwheel to the side of the stage was a warning that a pyrotechnic concussion was imminent. “Because you’re so close to the stage,” he said. “So you’re ready.”
On January 27, 2013, at the Kiss nightclub in Santa Maria, Brazil, an accident due to the use of pyrotechnics by the performing live show band caused a fire which resulted in the deaths of at least 236 people, while dozens suffered serious injuries from the fire and smoke inhalation.
The 2015 terrorist attack in France was coordinated. More restaurants were fired upon. At Café Bonne Biere and La Casa Nostra pizzeria, five people were killed and eight severely injured. Another occurred at La Belle Equipe bar. “It lasted at least three minutes,” one witness said. “Then they got back in their car.” Nineteen people died in the shooting, with nine in critical condition. Survivor accounts sometimes included “We thought, at first, we were hearing fireworks.”
Sparkler bombs are constructed by binding together as many as 300 sparklers with tape, leaving one extended to use as a fuse. Because they don’t have a timed fuse, there is some chance they could go off in someone’s hand.
When I was thirteen, a boy I knew blew his fingers off when he lit a pipe bomb he had finished a few hours earlier. “Isn’t this cool?” he’d said the whole time he was setting the fuse. “You should make one.” He said he was taking it to a family reunion picnic and placing it in the men’s room of the county park. His cousins that were around our age, he said, would be impressed because “It would blow shit up.”
Children were among the twenty-two people killed in the suicide attack after the Ariana Grande concert. Fifty-nine others were wounded, including some who suffered life-threatening injuries.
In large arenas, my son’s band performed during intermittent pyrotechnics that erupted near where they were standing. The jets of sparks never reached the high ceilings, all of which were constructed of materials that didn’t burn.
Once, in the middle of a tour, my son forwarded me a photograph of him standing beside a rock guitarist known as Dimebag Darrell, who had co-founded the well-known heavy metal bands Pantera and Damageplan. Both guitarists are relaxed and smiling after their paths crossed while touring. Shortly after my son sent the photo to me, Dimebag Darrell was shot and killed while performing with Damageplan in a Columbus, Ohio club by a man who jumped on stage.
October 30, 2015, at the Colectiv nightclub in Bucharest, Romania, pyrotechnics used by the band Goodbye to Gravity accidentally ignited soundproofing foam on a pillow. The fire quickly spread onto the ceiling and the rest of the club. Sixty-four people died, and more than two hundred were injured. Four members of Goodbye to Gravity lost their lives; only their soloist survived.
After I played that Great White video a third time, my son said, “Enough,” but I watched once more and focused on the man in the crowd who appeared to be oldest, my age maybe. He is near the back, not bouncing in place. When the film ends, even as some people move past him, he still hasn’t turned to rush toward the door.
Sparklers burn at temperatures hot enough to melt some metals.
Somewhere, I think nearly every day, the acolyte of terror dreams our bodies as it decides the exact address for delight.
The terrorists in France also attacked The Bataclan, a 1,500-seat theater located at 50 Boulevard Voltaire in the 11th arrondissement of Paris, where an American band Eagles of Death Metal were playing. Eighty-nine people died as the terrorists fired Kalashnikov-type assault rifles into the crowd. At least ninety-nine others were taken to hospitals in critical condition. “We thought it was fireworks,” one survivor said, “but then we realized there were men shooting in all directions. So we all lay on the floor and started crawling towards the stage.”
Because of a sparkler bomb’s construction, whoever is in the vicinity when it is lit will not know the direction in which the explosion will go, or whether the bomb will split and break up. It can explode shrapnel with massive force.
After the suicide bomber’s attack in England, the security editor for NBC News’ U.K. partner ITV News reported that nuts and bolts were spotted in the arena’s foyer, but police, initially, would not comment on whether victims had suffered wounds from shrapnel.
One afternoon word came down from the venue that someone had threatened my son’s band for that evening’s show in a city located hundreds of miles away. We talked on the phone several times while security was being tightened and authorities alerted. I tried to reassure him and myself that it was better to have someone openly declare the threat than keep it a secret because that meant it was highly unlikely that anything would happen that night. “But,” my son said, “there’s the next show and the next.”