Careful planning and choreography put those flaming splashes of color over Albany

John Flanagan, a supervisor with Santore’s World Famous Fireworks, checks the sequence in which hundreds of launcher tubes for the Empire State Plaza fireworks display later Monday.
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John Flanagan, a supervisor with Santore’s World Famous Fireworks, checks the sequence in which hundreds of launcher tubes for the Empire State Plaza fireworks display later Monday.

ALBANY — The full Fourth of July experience was back on track this year at Empire State Plaza, with a crowd expected to rival the pre-pandemic numbers of 10,000 to 20,000.

“They were a little more muted last year, and the year before was the year that was canceled,” said Jeanette May, commissioner of the state Office of General Services. “This is the first time that we are trying to get back to a much bigger performance.”

Live music, food, fun for kids and beverages for adults were back, along with a ceremony officially making 20 immigrants from 14 nations new citizens of the United States on its official 256th birthday.

“The fact that it brings people together specifically for July Fourth is special to us,” said Mona Golub, spokeswoman for Price Chopper and Market 32 supermarkets, which remains the presenting sponsor of the event it originated in 1976. “And it culminates in the biggest and best fireworks display in the region.”

The crew from Santore’s World Famous Fireworks in Schaghticoke rolled onto the Plaza late Monday morning, hopped out and promptly began flipping over their racks of launcher tubes, which had been left on their sides in case of rain overnight. Spare time is one thing in short supply on the Fourth of July.

The Schaghticoke pyrotechnics firm puts on about 350 displays a year but Independence Day is an entire busy season in just a few days, with close to 100 shows this long weekend.

“This is a particularly awesome location because you essentially have two shows at the same time,” said Mike Ciulla, who was working to set things up Monday. 

They had to load one array of launchers on either side of the long reflecting pool that bisects the Plaza, plus a raft with still more launchers.

“That side mirrors this side and also we have that float that goes out in the middle,” Ciulla said.

Like most other Santore employees, Ciulla is a part-timer. By day he operates an insurance agency and is the Mechanicville High School boys soccer coach. The supervisor of the crew setting up in the Empire State Plaza, John Flanagan, is a schoolteacher in East Greenbush.

If you like this sort of thing, it’s a dream gig.

“Go out here, put on a good display in front of people — pretty cool,” Ciulla summed up.

The artistry for the Santore isn’t in the chemistry of the explosion, with one starburst giving birth to another or changing colors midway through. The shells are made in China, not manufactured in-house.

What’s special is how those shells are sequenced, Ciulla said, “the choreography behind the scenes, putting it all together.

“There’s a guy back at the plant that puts this all in a script, loads it all in. There’s a lot of work that goes in behind the scenes before it all gets here. Everything is labeled, certain shells go in certain pipes. So if you’re listening to the song and it says ‘love,’ there’ll be a heart in the sky. ‘Happy,’ a smiley face.”

Flanagan laid it all out for the crew Monday, pasting stickers on each row of launchers to show what should be loaded into it, pausing and speed-dialing the home office for clarification when needed.

Computer-generated wireless signals trigger an electric charge in each tube or row of tubes in turn, sending the blast skyward.

The audience is kept well back from the launch pads, with a specific minimum safety zone that grows bigger in diameter as the shells get larger. 

Ciulla said Santore has employees inside the cordon ready to shut down the display if needed, but only a few.

“Most of the crew will be out there watching with everyone else,” he said.

Categories: News, Schenectady County

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