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April 19, 2014

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For professional pyros, it’s all in a day’s work

Fireworks veterans join forces on Henderson pyrotechnic display

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Melissa Arseniuk

Henderson’s annual Independence Day celebrations were held at the city’s Events Plaza and Convention Center.

If fireworks are the candles on America’s birthday cake, the city of Henderson blew out more than 900 of them Friday night.

The bold and beautiful display shot off from the roof of Henderson City Hall at 9 p.m., and after 15 ooh- and ahh-filled minutes, about $40,000 worth of blazing, booming glory had lit up the sky.

Fire Men of the Fourth

Henderson residents Andre Escoffier and Robert Wagner have been setting stuff on fire for a long time. They've worked as pyrotechnicians for more than 20 years and have launched fireworks in celebration of a wide range of occasions. The explosives they work with have always been dangerous, but that's all part of the excitement, they say. In the last two decades fireworks have improved dramatically, making the projectiles a lot less dangerous. On Friday they recounted a few incidents from the more primitive days of pyrotechnics. Despite the hazards involved, Escoffier says they've never had any injuries.

A pyrotechnic show of that size requires months of planning, nearly three days to assemble, and another day and a half to tear down and clean up. It’s no easy feat, but André Escoffier said he and his crew live for that kind of stuff.

“It’s really an acquired taste,” he said. “Mostly we do it because we like to blow stuff up.”

As the lead Henderson pyro with Fairfield, Utah-based fireworks contractor Lantis, Escoffier was entrusted with this year’s annual Fourth of July fireworks presentation.

While such a responsibility may be daunting for some, the 44-year-old welcomed the challenge. After all, with 20 years of professional pyrotechnic experience and thousands of shows under his belt, Escoffier considers himself an expert in the so-called “boom-factor.”

A Night in Henderson

Country singer Emily West performs a set during the Fourth of July celebration at the Henderson Events Plaza. Launch slideshow »

While most Nevadans are only allowed to set off fireworks 24 hours a year, on July 4, professional pyros like Escoffier get to play with fire on a daily basis.

“As a licensed company we can do it year-round,” he says with a smile.

Escoffier has coordinated shows for birthdays, weddings and casino openings, among other events. “We’ve even done a couple funerals, which was kind of interesting,” he said.

“We’ve done all the big casinos, the grand opening of the Excalibur,” veteran Lantis pyro Robert Wagner boasts. Yet he still remembers his first show, at the Delmar Gardens nursing home.

Escoffier said Independence Day shows are particularly special to him and his crew.

“We try to go with more color,” he says, especially red, white and blue.

Last Fourth of July, both Wagner and Escoffier were working in Lake Tahoe. This year was the first time either of them had collaborated on an Independence Day show in Henderson.

“Represent, man!” Wagner cheered Friday afternoon before he headed to the rooftop. “This is the hometown show!”

Behind the Boom in Henderson

The pin board controls the ignition. Launch slideshow »

Meanwhile, Escoffier was confident the evening would not disappoint. “It’s going to be about 15 minutes and it’s going to be non-stop,” he said.

The Lantis crew shot off 2,400 pounds of explosives during yesterday’s Fourth of July spectacular. Most of the show consisted of 2 1/2 and 3-inch shells that lit up the sky from as high up as 300 feet.

In addition to individual firework shells, the team also employed several bundled collections of fireworks, commonly known as “cakes” and “fans,” that illuminated the sky simultaneously.

In all, Friday’s show included more than 900 individual fireworks, including three 150-shot fans and cakes that generated four solid seconds of snap, crackle and pop in the sky.

While they all have different names – “The Golden Willow” and “The Blue Dragon” are just two of them – Escoffier said most fireworks cause “a lot of racket” when they explode high above the city -- the thunderous “salutes” especially.

And that’s just what it did.

Eight-year-old Kayla Erickson decided the show was “off the hook.” Her father, Joe Erickson, agreed: “Dude, they were awesome!”

And Erickson knows his fireworks: he’s been to the city’s annual show for about 27 consecutive years now – not that he’s counting.

He didn’t even miss the event five years ago, despite the fact that his wife gave birth to their son, Cameron, that same day. “I had to catch the fireworks with the other kids, so I left her in the hospital,” the father of four said.

Erickson said the 2008 edition of the fireworks was as good as ever, if not better.

Independence Day in Henderson

A young girl plays in the water at the Henderson Events Plaza and Convention Center before the annual Fourth of July fireworks. Launch slideshow »

“This year was really good,” he said. “(They were) way better than last year.”

Erickson’s friend, Mike Broadway, is equally enchanted with fireworks. “I’m the guy that wants to do that for a living,” Broadway said after Friday’s grand finale.

As far as Robert Dettlaff is concerned, when it comes to fireworks, “the bigger the boom, the better.” He drove from west Las Vegas to take in the show with his mother, who lives in Green Valley.

Reactions like Dettlaff’s come as no surprise to Escoffier. As far as traditional fan favorites go, he said the general rule is simple: The louder the better. “The crowd loves noise,” he said, “And we love it because it sets off every car alarm in town.”

While he didn’t think he’d grow up to be a professional pyro, Escoffier figures it makes perfect sense in retrospect. “I used to always play with matches when I was a kid,” he says with a laugh.

Though he currently works for the city of Henderson’s Parks and Recreation department by day, he is a professional pyrotechnician by night (and on weekends).

When he decided to take up the craft as a part-time occupation in his 20s, his mother didn’t hold back from making her reservations known.

“My mom told me I was nuts,” he said, recounting the phone calls in which she expressed her disapproval and concern. “I still get phone calls."

A career in pyrotechnics requires a delicate balance of fear and respect, he said, and he speaks highly of his team.

“I have the best crew. These guys know exactly what they’re doing,” he said, noting safety is always number one.

“We’ve all got our fingers and toes,” Wagner points out, jokingly holding his hands up as if for verification. “We may act like wild men and we may get a little crazy sometimes but we don’t mess around with this stuff.”

Escoffier says he has been both careful and lucky, and after years of “blowing stuff up,” he has yet to suffer any injuries on the job.

“I caught a palm tree on fire once,” he admitted. “The show was amazing, though.” (He claims the tree survived and is still standing today.)

Fireworks have come a long way since Escoffier first started lighting them two decades ago.

“About 20 years ago, stuff would catch on fire,” he smiles.

Those days, however, are long gone, as are the days of manually lighting wicks with matches: Today’s fireworks are set off with the push of a button. These electric matches send sparks flying toward the ignition at 80 feet a second, sending the firework off into the night sky almost instantly.

“As soon as you touch that match, the pin is gone,” Escoffier said.

But even after all these years, he said he loves being a professional pyro more than ever.

“It’s just the love of it, man, hearing the roar of the crowds,” he said, adding, “You just want more. It’s a rush. It’s hard to describe -- it’s pure adrenaline.”

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