How 10,000 fireworks look up close

What would it be like to stand right next to a team of pyrotechnicians as they blow up a gigantic hoard of high explosives? See what it feels like to burn $400,000 in 45 minutes in this spectacular July 4th celebration, performed one day early by Bartolotta Fireworks Company, one of the most renowned fireworks display organizations in the country. We were right next to the team of more than two dozen pro pyrotechnicians as they lit up more than 10,000 bombs over Milwaukee last night.

Jeff Bartolotta is the composer of last night’s extravaganza, more of a fiery and explosive ballet in three acts than a mere fireworks display. To choreograph his creations, Bartolotta uses a software package especially created for pyrotechnics called ShowSim Pro, where each one of the blazing paints that will color his pitch-black nighttime palette can be laid out on a timeline and then graphically simulated in 3D.

Bartolotta’s performance unfolded in three segments, each with its own astonishing finale. Bartolotta likes to tease his crowd of 500,000 people here at the Lake Michigan lakefront in downtown Milwaukee, making newcomers think the party’s over after about 20 minutes, when in reality, it’s just begun. After one rousing finale with a thunderous fusillade of all kinds of fiery confections, he pauses just long enough for people to start getting up to leave. Then with a boom, he’s off to the second act. He’s honed his style down to an art form.

While Bartolotta is delighted with his PC software that plans his shows, he’s not keen on using computerized ignition for such a huge performance as this. Instead, he has two trusty switch panels that have served him well over the three decades-plus that he’s been bringing his own style of thunder and lightning all across the country. Many of the groups of mortars are electronically ignited with firing panels, while the other explosives' fuses are hand-lit by a seasoned team of shooters equipped with flares, getting the job done with impressive efficiency.

A radio linked him with the two other firing locations — one on top of Wisconsin’s tallest building and another on a barge floating in the Milwaukee Bay, while a fourth location was manned by the bank president who hired him, shooting an additional group of fireworks as well. The result of all this meticulous planning and enormous firepower was the largest and most impressive conflagration we’ve ever experienced. Donning hard hats and fire jackets, we got right in there with the shooters, placing our cameras where no man in his right mind has gone before. Take a look at the video above and gallery below for proof that we lived to tell you about this unforgettable experience.