New equipment makes displays safer
SIKESTON - While one of the last firework shows to use volunteers was without a doubt one of the most dramatic firework shows ever put on, these days the Elks leave the fireworks to the pros.
"Safety is number one - you don't want anybody hurt," said Dennis Wisdom of Cosmic Inc., Wisdom Sales Company of Poplar Bluff, the company hired by the Elks to put on the show over the last several years.
This year's show for Sikeston will feature some 10-inch and 12-inch shells, according to Wisdom. "Those are beautiful," he said.
"They've done it for the last several years for us," said Mike Gadberry, Elk fireworks committee member. "He does us a good job: courteous, conscientious and lives by the rules."
"We're a small, family-owned business," Wisdom said, with his father having started the business in 1935, and his 30-year-old son making it three generations. He estimated they do 40-45 shows a year.
"I've been shooting fireworks shows since before there were laws regulating fireworks shows," Wisdom said. Starting at age 11, Wisdom spent several summers traveling with a circus doing daily firework shows. "Today, you have to be 21 years old to set off a firework display," he said, although assistants only have to be 18.
Over the years, Wisdom has had contracts with casinos, provided pyrotechnics for the Oliver Stone film "The People vs. Larry Flint," was part of a 20-barge show in Osaka, Japan, and spent three years shooting with Siam International Firework Company from 1987 to 1990.
While the lifetime of experience helps, Wisdom said what really makes a difference is having the equipment to make shooting the fireworks as safe as possible. "Years ago they used to shoot them out of metal tubes," Wisdom said. As the weight of the launching tubes made bringing one for each shell to be launched prohibitively heavy, the same few tubes were used for entire shows.
"One thing that is really dangerous is when you reload a shell," Wisdom said. "All of ours are preloaded." Cosmic Inc., Wisdom Sales Company has at least $5,000 invested in modern launch tubes that are as durable and strong as steel but one-tenth of the weight.
With each firework in the show having its own launch tube, in a worst-case scenario, they would all go up in the air at once unlike a box or pile of unloaded fireworks - which is exactly what happened during the well-remembered 1994 fireworks show accident in Sikeston.
"We got out there shooting fireworks off, and somehow that wind blew a spark back off one of the fireworks," recalled Darrel Latham of Sikeston. "When it went up in the air, the wind just changed direction all of a sudden and it blew right back in our face, and that one spark flew right into the box."
They all grabbed at the ember as they watched it float right down into a box of fireworks that hadn't been loaded yet. While the fuses looked like they were five feet long, "there's no way you could hold your finger on a fuse and put it out," Latham said, as unlike other fuses he's seen or the dynamite sticks on TV, the fuses were incredibly fast. "As soon as you touch them - boom! They're gone," Latham said. "It was just instantaneous."
Latham recalled several people diving into the complex's lake, but he took off the other direction. "It was like a canopy over me," he said. "I ran all the way out to the road with a four-incher in my hand."
Somehow, he managed to escape without any burns or injuries. "You felt the percussion of it - that's for sure," Latham said.
Larry Turley, formerly of Sikeston and now living in Ashland City, Tenn., wasn't quite as fortunate. He recalled he was standing right next to the box of mortars that the ember fell into.
"I heard the explosions and started to run away," Turley said. "There were two of us that went to the hospital - I think I was the only one that got burnt."
"The main problem we had is they were shipped in cardboard boxes, and that's what we were pulling them out of," he added. In following years, they started keeping them in closed coolers, he recalled, before they began hiring a professional to set them off.
"I don't want to do that again - I was scared doing it the whole time. You need to know what your doing with those," said Latham. "It was a wild thing."
As for the new regulations in effect this year, Wisdom said "anything that ensures safety is a good thing."
A permit from the ATF is required for individuals who wish to purchase professional grade fireworks this year, requiring "a background check, fingerprinting and a personal interview," according to Wisdom. "It's kept the fireworks out of the hand of possibly unscrupulous people."
While the ATF is overwhelmed this year by applications, "I think it eventually will be a good thing," Wisdom said, once they catch up. "When it went into effect May 24 they didn't even have the forms ready."