San Diego fireworks malfunction in big, fast flash

Entire display goes off at once, show lasts just 20 seconds

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Updated: July 5, 2012, 5:09 PM

 

Local angle

Unlike San Diego, the annual fireworks at the Independence Day at Fort Vancouver went off as planned Wednesday night. Problems at the annual show are rare. In 2003, it was interrupted for five to six minutes because of a short in the electronics that light the fireworks.

photoYachts are illuminated in the foreground as a malfunction causes an entire Fourth of July fireworks show to go off all at once over San Diego Bay near Coronado Island in San Diego on Wednesday. The Coast Guard says the mishap occurred minutes before the scheduled opening of the Big Bay Boom show. More than 500,000 people witnessed the short-lived spectacle. No injuries were reported.

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SAN DIEGO — The Fourth of July fireworks show went off with a bang over San Diego Bay. Too big a bang.

The Big Bay Boom show that was supposed to wow crowds for 20 minutes lasted only about 20 seconds after a computer mishap caused multiple bulb-shaped explosions on the bay, lighting the night sky over downtown San Diego and filling the air with deafening booms.

The show’s producer blamed a “technical glitch” Thursday, saying an error in its computer system caused tens of thousands of fireworks on four barges to go off simultaneously with a single command.

“Thank goodness no one was injured. Precautions all worked 100 percent,” said August Santore, part-owner of Garden State Fireworks.

Garden State Fireworks, based in Millington, N.J., apologized and vowed to determine precisely what went wrong. The 122-year-old company produced hundreds of other shows across the country Wednesday night.

Santore said the company felt terrible, but the mood was unforgiving among many of the hundreds of thousands of people who witnessed the explosions before they could get off their first “ooh” or “ah.”

The crowd stood in quiet disbelief, with many wondering what just happened. Word went out on the radio about 20 minutes later that the show was over.

Crowds of people had waited hours. The San Diego Trolley was packed, hotel rooms facing the bay were sold out, and a patriotic score was set to be simulcast on a local radio station. The show was set to stream live on the Web.

Instead, the fireworks flop became a hit online by Thursday afternoon, received more than 600,000 views on YouTube.

Spectators complained it was not immediately clear the show was over.

Sponsors contributed about $380,000 to host the show, said Sandy Purdon, owner of a bay marina and the chief organizer. The Port of San Diego contributed $145,000 as title sponsor, with hotels and restaurants giving much of the rest.

The port district gave an additional $50,000 worth of services, including traffic control, portable toilets and cleanup.

The fireworks cost $125,000 and the barges and tugs cost $45,000, Purdon said. After permits, publicity, buses and other costs, there was about $50,000 left, which was earmarked to help young military families though the San Diego Armed Services YMCA.

The port district said in a statement that it was “very disappointed” in what it described as an apparent technical error.

It was unclear if anyone will get reimbursed. Purdon, who witnessed the explosions from his home with his sponsors, said he had discussed with Garden State Fireworks the possibility that it foots the bill for next year’s Fourth of July show.

Garden State Fireworks has staged pyrotechnic displays for the 1988 Winter Olympics, the Statue of Liberty Bicentennial Celebration and New Year’s Eve in Central Park in New York City.

“We are a good strong company, and we rely on technology. We’ll take the ridicule as long as no one was injured,” Santore said.

The debacle will likely fuel a long-running controversy in San Diego about damage that fireworks displays inflict on marine life. Environmental attorney Marco Gonzalez has repeatedly challenged shows that take place over water, inviting ire and ridicule from critics including San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders.

Gonzalez recently prevailed in a pair of court decisions but decided against trying to block this year’s show in La Jolla Cove. Still, organizers of a fireworks show over San Diego’s Lake Murray canceled this year’s show, saying they feared a lawsuit.

“The notion that fireworks are critical to Independence Day celebrations has just been blown out of proportion with these large shows,” Gonzalez said.