It should be way better than the ball.

The last 10 seconds to 2000 will be counted down, or rather up, tonight in a spectacular pyrotechnic display of light that will ascend the Washington Monument, fracture the midnight sky and be visible for miles.

A simulated "fuse," consisting of a line of 100 separate fireworks positions suspended three feet above the Reflecting Pool, will be ignited by President Clinton and a group of children from the floor of the Lincoln Memorial--the focus of the evening's entertainment gala--and signal the start of the monument countdown.

Then, using hundreds of cigar-sized pyrotechnics lashed to the monument's scaffolding, Fireworks by Grucci, the venerable Long Island fireworks firm, will sheath the 555-foot monument step-by-step in ten 50-foot segments of glittering white light. At the climax of Washington's "Midnight Moment," the monument will be almost fully illuminated for 20 seconds.

Next will come a barrage of aerial fireworks shot from three flatbed tractor-trailers east of the monument; the ignition of banks of ground-level 40-millimeter Roman candles north and south of the monument; and the firing of scores of red strobe lights framing the obelisk.

In addition, a 50-foot-tall structure bearing the number "2000" and facing the Lincoln Memorial will be switched on at midnight and will then flash on and off.

The Midnight Moment will be brief, lasting about two or three minutes, but "inspiring," said George Stevens Jr., the co-producer of the America's Millennium extravaganza.

As for New York's legendary ball--"The ball's going to be blown away," said M. Philip Butler, the Grucci producer for the Washington show. "I won't hype it beyond the obvious."

A second six-minute aerial fireworks display over the Lincoln Memorial is scheduled to follow 50 minutes of post-midnight entertainment, capping the evening's festivities about 1 a.m.

That display will be launched from special barges that will be anchored in the Potomac River just west of the Lincoln Memorial.

The best place to see the whole show will be the Mall, which is expected to be ground zero for tens of thousands of revelers assembled to party and welcome the next 10 centuries.

But the countdown should be visible from any locale where the monument can be glimpsed.

"It's going to have some overlap, and it's going to be visible from all sides," Butler said of the pyrotechnic display. "It has a lot of wander to it."

Some prime viewing spots beyond the Mall are expected to be Meridian Hill Park at 16th and W streets in Northwest Washington; the Jefferson Memorial; the U.S. Capitol; Hains Point; and West Potomac Park. Good vantage points across the Potomac River will probably be near the Iwo Jima Memorial or Lady Bird Johnson Park.

Many local roads will be closed on both sides of the river, though, and access to many viewing spots may be only via Metro or on foot.

The monument countdown is a stroke of sheer coincidence, fireworks producers have said. Had the scaffolding--which was erected as part of a $5 million exterior stonework restoration project--not been in place, such a show would not have been possible.

Stevens is generally credited with coming up with the idea of an illuminated monument "count up," though he said this week, "Victory has many fathers."

Even with the scaffolding, there have been complaints that fireworks on the monument are potentially dangerous and damaging to the national treasure.

White House and Grucci officials say all precautions have been taken, and Stevens said Wednesday that a giant sheet of plastic has been erected on the Monument's west face, behind the scaffolding, to protect the stone from soot.

The Grucci company, which helped put on the fireworks displays at the centennials of the Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge, won't say exactly how much the show, which is being funded by private donations, is costing.

It's in the "high six figures," Butler said, and is believed to be the most expensive fireworks show being staged for the millennium.


Seconds before the new year begins, a chain of fireworks along the Reflecting Pool will light the way to a pyrotechnic countdown on the scaffolding of the Washington Monument. What to expect:

1. The "Fuse": A series of fireworks electronically linked together are triggered from the Lincoln Memorial. This "fuse," made of groups of Roman candles, runs the length of the Reflecting Pool.

2. Monument countdown: The "fuse" signals a chain reaction from the bottom to the top of the monument's west face, counting out the final 10 seconds of 1999. Spaced in 50-foot increments, clusters of waterfall fireworks are connected by Shock Tube, a powdered explosive that ignites at a speed of 6,000 feet per second.

3. Strobe, fireworks: With the monument fully illuminated, a strobe light and fireworks display follows.

4. Year 2000: On the east end of the Reflecting Pool, a 50-foot-high "2000" sign lights up, followed by a 30-second cascade of "split comets."

All of the fireworks are attached to the monument's scaffolding with wire -- 135 miles' worth -- and do not touch the monument itself.

SOURCE: Fireworks by Grucci

CAPTION: Pyrotechnists Bob Citko, left, and Matt Carrara load Grucci fireworks.