The flash and bang of exploding fireworks are among the earliest memories of Adam Spiegel and Jackie Johnson — Spiegel in the sugar cane fields near his boyhood home in White Castle and Johnson on the manicured blue-green lawns of Marrero.
Fast forward a few decades, now both men work for AFX PRO LLC, a Mandeville company that produces several hundred pyrotechnics shows each year.
The outfit, owned by fellow firecracker fan David Spear, has quite the clientele.
AFX PRO has produced displays for 11 Super Bowls, three Republican National Conventions, LSU football, the Saints and the Pelicans. There are music festivals and concerts, and too many weddings and parties to count.
But the big show is tonight, when Spear and J&M Displays produce Go 4th on the River, the Independence Day blowout on the Mississippi River in New Orleans ranked among the Top 5 “Must See” fireworks displays in the United States by the American Pyrotechnic Association.
Spiegel, Johnson, Spear and Spear's son, choreographer Brandon Spear, log hundreds of hours to ensure that the fleeting moments of fire in the sky are not only beautiful, but safe for people and property on the ground.
It's no easy task. Approximately 2,200 individual fireworks will be fired from two floating barges stationed about a third of a mile apart on the New Orleans riverfront. A half-ton of explosive material and packaging is loaded onto each barge, all of it hooked up to individual electronic matches and computer-controlled to start ignition.
Tens of thousands of people are expected to line both banks of the Mississippi to view the 11-minute, 3-second show, set to patriotic and popular music.
It’s an adrenaline rush for the guys that make everything go boom, but it’s countered by a heavy dose of reality: Pyrotechnics can, of course, be deadly if not properly handled.
“The day you start getting comfortable around this stuff is the day something happens,” Brandon Spear said. “A respectful fear for the fireworks and knowing what they can do" is necessary.
"But if you do everything you are supposed to and not cut any corners, there’s a sense of relief.”
Standing on barges a few dozen yards away from the explosive mother lode, Spiegel and Johnson will each be sheltered by a “shooter shack” made of three-quarter-inch plywood and thick Plexiglas.
They’ll wear hard hats, safety goggles, earphones and life jackets, and they’ll have two firefighters, a fire captain and a fire inspector on each barge as well.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Coast Guard essentially closes down the Mississippi River at New Orleans so no hazardous cargo is passing through at the time of the show.
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Go 4th on the River is billed as a “Dueling Barges Fireworks Show,” but in reality the barges are working in perfect unison with the help of computers, not to mention the pyro-technicians on the job. The name reflects the fact that two identical displays will be taking place about four city blocks apart over the river.
David Spear remembered watching fireworks shows at Pontchartrain Beach as a child. He founded AFX PRO after leasing barges to companies handling fireworks displays during the 1984 World’s Fair in New Orleans.
Noting that the three companies handling the World’s Fair job were from out of town (California, Kansas and France) Spear figured that with the number of big events always happening in New Orleans, a local pyrotechnics company had the potential to skyrocket.
He was right. After training and licensing, Spear and AFX produced their first show in April 1985. It's 32 years later, and business is still booming. His teams will produce a couple dozen Fourth of July displays — some big and some small — this year alone.
“We do all the preparation work right,” Brandon Spear said. “That way, we can bring all our subcontractors in, our lead shooters in. Here’s your equipment. Here’s your fireworks. Have a ball.”
Go 4th on the River
Produced by the Riverfront Marketing Group
9 p.m. Tuesday
Downtown New Orleans
Editor's note: This editorial with modifications, has appeared in previous Fourth of July editions of The Advocate: