Behind the Scenes of D.C.’s ‘Capitol Fourth’ Fireworks Display

July 4, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Fireworks will be illuminating the skies in cities across the country on this Fourth of July holiday. Among the classic destinations is the fireworks show at the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, we take a look at what makes the Washington, D.C., Fourth of July celebrations so explosive.

TOM STINER, Pyro Shows: I’m Tom Stiner. And I work with Pyro Shows, this great company in Tennessee that, for the ninth consecutive year, has been awarded the honor to come here and salute the nation with a terrific fireworks show.

If it has a theme, you start with the theme, and then you select the music if it’s going to be a choreographed show. And a really classical, good show is choreographed to appropriate music. This show, the theme is, undivided we stand, in honor of the 10th anniversary of 9/11.

In any patriotic show, you will have a lot of red, white, and blue. In this show, you will have just a lot of, we love America. Most of the fireworks come from China for all companies. We get some fireworks from Italy and some fireworks from Spain to achieve the best color we can get.

And we buy the fireworks that are traditionally proved and loved. And then we will take all of the new ones that we can get to stay up with the latest technology as well. There is an awful lot of physics and a lot of chemistry and a lot of science in fireworks, even though they’re produced in the most rudimentary manner, by human hands, a very laborious process where they take the cardboard, mold it into something that they can put the powder in, the filler in, and then many, many times of wrapping it with wet paper like you were doing papier-mache.

We have 10-inch shells and eight-inch shells and six-inch shells, all of them required to break above the Washington Monument, which is 550 feet tall, as we all know. So the smallest shell we can use here is a six-inch shell. And that in most shows is the largest that they could hope to use.

A six-inch shell will go up 600 feet and it will break a pattern at least 600 feet in diameter. We’re setting this show up on each side of the Reflecting Pool. We drop the shell in. Then we put plastic over it to waterproof it. Then we put aluminum foil over it to fireproof it.

Once it’s in the tube, it’s perfectly safe and impervious from elemental harm, as well as accidental or intentional attempts to make it do what we don’t want it to do. Then you will run a string of wires through a series of junction boxes and 26 pair of cable to a firing board, where a pyrotechnician, on the night of the show, will stand and flip a switch, which will launch a certain number of shells.

For instance, at the opening, the first switch we press on cue one will launch 26 shells. Fireworks is a tradition that’s probably as old as any tradition that we have in this country. John Adams’ letter to Abigail on the 2nd or 3rd of July 1776 said that this was going to be the most significant day in this nation’s history, and it ought to be celebrated by pomp and circumstance, and celebrations, and parties, and illuminations and fireworks from one shore to the other and perpetuated from generation to generation from this day forward.

And I think it not only exists and persists, but grows every year. It’s part of us.