On the Clock: Family’s business keeps fireworks tech on the go around the Fourth
ALBANY For Justin Alonzo, all that glitters is not just gold. Reds, greens, blues and silvers are other fiery colors he helps deliver into the night skies.
As a fireworks technician for Alonzo Fireworks, Alonzo has been setting up shows all over the Capital Region during the past few days.
“It’s hell week, but in a good way,” said Alonzo, 31, who lives in Cohoes and is a seasonal worker for Mechanicville’s most explosive company. “It keeps us busy, keeps us out of trouble.”
Alonzo and a dozen other guys were at the Empire State Plaza on Wednesday, unloading and then wiring about 12,000 special effects. One crew worked just below the center for the performing arts, The Egg. Alonzo’s crew worked directly across from the theater and the decorative pool in the center of the plaza, on pavement covered by thin sheets of plywood.
The plaza show is one of the biggest in the area. Alonzo the technician knows the 30-minute display means a lot — to Alonzo the company.
“It’s a ton of pressure,” said Alonzo, one of several family members who work for business president Jeff Alonzo. “We just do it. I’ve done it on and off for 16 years, and I still get butterflies. It’s fun. It’s the best part-time job you can have.”
Preparing for launch
At 2:10 p.m. Alonzo was working on a boxlike frame filled with thick, black, 21⁄2-foot tall polyethylene tubes. He wired a squib, a small electronically controlled igniter, into each mortar and dropped the mortar into the bottom of each tube. Yellow wires ran from the mortar into 32 numbered slots on a control rail. The rail, along with bunches of other rails, would later be used in a master panel used to “fire” explosives into the heavens.
Alonzo was working with 3-inch, paper-wrapped mortars, all about the size of a Red Delicious apple. His 5-inch mortars were as big as grapefruits. The apple-sized bombs would rise about 300 feet; the grapefruits would explode at 500 feet. The latter height is the limit for the plaza show, Alonzo said, because of nearby buildings and people who stand and sit close to the action.
Alonzo, a 1999 graduate of Waterford-Halfmoon Central School who works full-time for the Mohawk Paper Mill in Waterford, patiently and efficiently clipped wires and inserted them into the rail. Summer heat was in the mid-80s, and Alonzo had tucked the sleeves of his blue Alonzo T-shirt into his shoulders. He was also wearing long navy blue cargo shorts and blue and white K-Swiss sneakers. The heat was OK with him.
“It’s better than rain,” Alonzo said. “If it started raining right now, you’d see us running like madmen covering all these [frames] up.”
Rain and fire have never mixed, and heavy rains have canceled some shows. Alonzo said company crews have fired mortars in the rain, but precipitation keeps smoke down and can give the bombs bursting in air a hazy, foggy effect. So hot days and clear nights are fine with fireworks people.
Had heavy rains postponed the plaza show, the Alonzo crewmen would have protected their work and waited until Thursday. “We’d have to keep guys here all night,” Alonzo said.
Electronically controlled shows ensure proper firing, especially when explosives are supposed to be in sync with musical selections that are played during the display. But there can be glitches — at Wednesday’s “Big Bay Boom” show at the Port of San Diego, technical problems caused a massive, immediate launch of all mortars. A planned 18-minute extravaganza was over in 15 seconds.
Master controls will tell technicians if all their wires are hot, or connected. “We’ll double, triple and quadruple check them,” Alonzo said. “Just before the show, we’ll do it all again.”
At 2:35, Alonzo was still working on connections. Music from the afternoon party at the Plaza drifted into the fireworks area, which had been closed off to the public. People had begun to camp out for the day, anticipating the Fourth of July finale.
“You guys want lunch?” asked Andy Fountain, the foreman on the job.
“What are we getting?” Alonzo asked.
“Barbecue,” Fountain responded.
The fiery food was acceptable to the fire crew. Some men drifted away; Alonzo stayed on the job.
With the chief summer holiday falling midweek this year, shows began last weekend and continue this weekend. “I’m working the show Saturday at Saratoga Lake and Sunday at Mechanicville,” Alonzo said. “We like to show off for the Mechanicville one. That’s where we’re from.”
Watching for glitches
The wiring would be complete by 5. Alonzo said the set-up crew never watches the show. They’re always on the shooting grounds, watching skies for embers that could drift down and possibly ignite mortars before their scheduled accelerations. The guys are also available for any trouble-shooting.
At 2:50, Alonzo still had a long day ahead. While people would begin long rides home in slow traffic at 10 p.m., Alonzo and his friends would begin clean-up and pack-up. “Hopefully, we’ll be out of here by 1 a.m. and start all over tomorrow,” he said.
At 3, Alonzo decided to take a break. He didn’t want to miss that barbecue lunch.