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Monday, May 27, 2024


May 7, 2000 — (Reprinted April 27, 2001) You think the bombs bursting in air Saturday night were loud on the St. Thomas waterfront? You think the fireworks were impressive?
The sounds were nothing compared to those aboard the boat where they were being fired. And the sights were far removed from the view directly beneath the exploding shells.
A journalist's brief foray into the world of those who fill the night sky with lights is, well, enlightening. Come along for the ride. . .
All shells on deck
Heading out into the St. Thomas harbor at 8:30 p.m. Saturday, the motor vessel Lady Romney has its deck full of upright black cylinders looking to be from about 16 inches to 4 feet in height, secured in plywood frames, laid out in four irregular rows. Scattered here and there are cardboard boxes. Zambelli Internationale is about to launch its 12th V.I. Carnival fire-in-the-sky show, "Thunder Over Charlotte Amalie."
A half hour earlier, workers had draped aluminum foil across the top of each frame and box, taping it at the sides, as a precaution in case of rain. "We use foil because we can shoot the fireworks off right through it," the man in charge, Ernie Simmons, explains.
Even before showers seemed a possibility, a couple of low-lying frames, about queen-mattress size, had been covered with foil. "That's the finale package," Simmons says, and it was covered "so a little spark won't set any of it off early." The finale is to burn up 1,500 shells — the fireworks that are shot out of the cylinders — in two minutes. "That's what's gonna rock the boat," Simmons says.
Trailing off the frames are long computer-type cables, 10 of which finally are plugged into a bare-bones control console balanced atop a makeshift wooden stand. The fireworks people would have you believe that everything is computerized these days. "With computer firing, you can give instant split-second review, and it's fascinating," George Zambelli Sr., the 70-something company president, says. "It's new to us, just five years, and it's just amazing."
The system uses an electric match called a squib that has fine wires connected to a slat that's hooked via cable to the console. As the person at the console touches a probe to activate a particular section of the slat, the squib there lights the fuse immediately and — boom. "We're the world's No. 1 user of squibs," Zambelli says.
A "shot" is whatever is wired together to go up at one time — it could be as many as 100 shells for a complex display. A shell looks a lot like a clay coconut dangling from a short rope. Some shells are avocado- or even avocado-pit size, others are bigger than a basketball, and the largest for this show is 16 inches in diameter. The rope is the fuse, and a split second after it's ignited — boom.
To choreograph the fireworks to recorded music, Simmons explains, the person at the console "listens to a verbal countdown of the seconds keyed to the music, not to the music itself. It takes four to 12 seconds to break in the air, and we have that programmed into the count."
This doesn't happen on the spot, of course. The company had the music two weeks earlier, but that was cutting it close. "We like it six to eight weeks in advance," Simmons says.
Artists in the sky
The Zambelli Internationale [with an Italian e] Fireworks Manufacturing Co., which bills itself as the First Family of Fireworks, got started in Italy with Zambelli's great-grandfather — and there are still Zambelli cousins in the business there. The U.S. company, founded in 1893, is the nation's oldest and largest manufacturer and displayer of fireworks. George got into it full-time in 1946, the year he graduated from college.
"I got my degree, and my dad said ‘It's yours. Run with it,'" he recalls. Family continuity is assured, he says, as his four daughters and his son are actively involved in the business. "They all travel on their own, doing four or five shows a night."
Simmons calls what he does "art in the sky." He's been doing it for 26 years — the last 22 with Zambelli — in 24 countries. And, he notes, both of his sons have gone into the business, too — one did a show at Peter Island a few years ago and the other worked a Millennium show in the Bahamas.
Also, Simmons says, "two guys in their 20s I've been training for about six months are about ready to go out on their own on small shows."
Zambelli's son, by the way, is an ophthalmologist who "does eye surgery during the day and fireworks at night." Moonlighting by professional people is a staple in Zambelli's operations. "We have attorneys, a judge, insurance agents who work part-time, because it's fun," Simmons explains. "The kid comes out in them."
More to the point, he adds, "Professional people can take off a week at a time when they want, whereas those who work for somebody else can't." And around the Fourth of July, in particular, that's critical.
Zambelli says it's a pleasure to put on the annual St. Thomas shows, mainly because of the businessman/philanthropist who has made them possible. Randy Knight got the tradition going while he was the owner of St. Thomas-St. John Cable TV and has kept it in place as an owner of Knight Quality Stations — Radio One, Kiss-FM and Jamz.
Knight "has a good knowledge of fireworks, and he keeps us alert," Zambelli says. "We never say no to him. He knows what he wants, and that's what we work toward."
Specifically? "Randy wants special shells, he wants big shells, he wants the sky filled at all times — split comets, big chrysanthemum shells with palm-core centers." And the bombs — called "salutes" — he likes those, too, "and Italian bombs that go off in a lot of successive color with hammer noise."
Recalling a couple of years earlier when falling sparks ignited dry bush atop Hassel Island and the wind fanned the flames down the western slope, Simmons says it will never happen again. "That year, we were anchored on a barge," he explains. "Since then, we've had a boat that can move around."
Zambelli, headquartered in New Castle, Pa., has regional operations in Florida and California. The crew dispatched to St. Thomas did a show in West Palm Beach, Fla., on Friday night. Two weeks earlier, it did the annual "Thunder Over Louisville," a 30-minute extravaganza that is an official part of the Kentucky Derby festivities and "is mammoth," Zambelli says (1,200 boxes of fireworks, compared to the 100 used here, Simmonds later adds).
On Sunday, the crew flew off to Virginia for another show, with Ohio the next stop. In the Caribbean alone, Simmons says, he's done Aruba, the Bahamas, Belize, Curacao, the Dominican Republic, Nevis, Puerto Rico, St. Barth's and St. Martin.
Last year, for the first time, Zambelli Internationale went to an international fireworks competition in Geneva, Switzerland. It came away with first prize.
Up in smoke
Five minutes after the warning shots, the show begins. For those on shore it is graceful, colorful, ooh- and aah-inspiring. On deck, to the inexperienced observer, it is the sound and light show from hell. So much for computerization. Simmons and his associate Ray Lafredo are out there in the semi-darkness, amid the swirling smoke, racing around the deck while rockets are blasting off non-stop all over the place. Using a hand-held torch, they ignite fuses dangling from the tops of cylinders, whipping their arms back and crouching in the instant before each explosion occurs.
Next, other crew members rush out carrying handfuls of fuses with more shells swinging beneath (kind of like soap-on-a-rope). They swerve around the ongoing explosions, dash up to now-empty cylin
ders and drop their shells in. Then Simmons and Lafredo make the rounds again, igniting the fresh fuses. Yes, one learns, there is recycling in the fireworks business.
In what seems like no time — or forever, depending on how you are counting –the finale shots blast off, the sky becomes a cacophony of color and sound, and smoke envelops the Lady Romney deck. Then the music ends, the sky goes dark, and it's the end of the show. Almost.
First thing Simmons, Lafredo and their crew do in the dark is carry out a quick reconnaissance around the deck. From experience they know what the casual observer does not: that, for whatever reason, some shells do not explode as planned. So it's back to the hand-held torch, and the crowd on shore is surprised to get a few extra booms. Simmons explains later, "We would rather set them off than have to take them back with us and go through Customs."
It took the Zambelli crew of four plus three local assistants most of Friday and Saturday to set up the fireworks on the deck of the Lady Romney. It takes them 18 minutes and change to blow them to bits. And it takes a couple hours more to clean up the mess on the deck, which looks in the aftermath like the landscape left behind by a tornado.
Heading back to the dock, with the deck lights on again, somebody finds one more unexploded shell — a basketball-size one. "We'll take it back," Simmons decides.
This year's show, by the way, was a $30,000 version, as opposed to the $50,000 ones of years past. A few minutes shorter, a little less spectacular. It was a matter of math in terms of corporate sponsorship, Knight says. Underwriters this year in addition to KQS were Coors Light (Bellows International), MSI Building Supplies, MSI Tile and Bath, St. Thomas-St. John Cable TV and Southern Energy Inc.

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