The idea seemed brilliant.
Washington's millennial celebration on the national Mall would of course need fireworks. But there were fireworks on the Mall every July. How could these be made memorable? What would elevate this show above all others?
The millennium gala's co-producer, George Stevens Jr., found the answer towering right in front of him: 555 feet of shimmering stone, caged for the moment in repair scaffolding: the Washington Monument.
It was perfect.
Might a 10-second fireworks countdown, or count up, be created to safely ascend the hallowed structure right before midnight? Absolutely, replied his fireworks contractor, the Long Island pyrotechnics firm of Fireworks by Grucci.
But when the idea was posed to the National Park Service, the monument's steward, the answer was a grade-A, government-inspected "No way."
The "Midnight Moment"--in which 1999's final seconds were ticked off by fireworks ascending the monument's scaffolding in 50-foot increments--almost didn't happen.
It grew out of Stevens's suggestion, and then survived a delicate, months-long waltz involving the advocates of showmanship, pyrotechnic art and historic dignity that ended just days ago.
It weathered the Park Service's initial no, evolved into a program in which three sides of the structure would be illuminated, then was almost canceled after a congressman called it a "desecration" and the Park Service got cold feet on Tuesday.
In the end, pyrotechnics were ignited only on the west side of the monument, where a $60,000, 500-foot sheet of fireproof protective plastic had been hung between the stone and the scaffolding.
The fireworks company, which dates to 19th-century Italy, had 26 pyrotechnists working for 15 days to string 135 miles of wire and set up scores of Fiberglas firing "guns" and hundreds of fireworks.
More than 700 cigar-size "waterfalls," for example, lashed to the monument scaffolding three feet apart, were used on the countdown--leaving the structure fully illuminated for about 20 seconds.
Three hundred other small fireworks, arranged in a line of 100 stands in the Mall's Reflecting Pool, made up a simulated fuse preceding the countdown.
They were followed by a two-minute barrage of more than 90 aerial fireworks shot from flatbed tractor-trailers east of the monument, ground-level 40-millimeter roman candles fired north and south of the monument, and the ignition of red strobe lights framing the monument like a holiday decoration.
A 50-foot-tall structure facing the Lincoln Memorial flashed the number "2000" at midnight. The display at the monument lasted two or three minutes.
A second, six-minute aerial fireworks display was fired from two barges in the Potomac River behind the Lincoln Memorial to cap the festivities about 1 a.m., concluding with a massive golden-webbed burst that filled the sky above the memorial.
The family-run Grucci company, which has also done fireworks for five presidential inaugurations and the centennials of the Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge, began planning the show in September in the face of the Park Service's opposition.
"They said no," recalled M. Philip Butler, the Grucci producer for the show. "Then they said, 'What part of no don't you understand?' . . . It was tough."
Phil Grucci, a vice president of the company and the grandson of its American founder, added: "The first few responses were no, until we had an opportunity to really explain and present our case."
"Roman candles and fireworks spewing out of the top of it, I'm sure, was the first vision of the people that we proposed it to," he said.
In an interview last month at company headquarters in the pine barrens of central Long Island, Grucci stressed that they planned to work with "the utmost dignity to the structure."
"It's very important for us not to turn it into a roman candle," he said. "It's very important to the nation that we present this with the highest degree of dignity."
The government finally gave the green light for the countdown just three weeks ago. Initially, the plan was for the monument to be "wrapped" in curtains of fireworks on the west, north and south sides.
Grucci technicians traveled to Washington and quickly wired the monument scaffolding on the three sides with hundreds of the modest "waterfall" devices.
The waterfalls were connected with hundreds of yards of pink "shock tube," a lightning-fast fuse made of thin plastic filled with powdered explosive. Shock tube can carry a spark 6,800 feet per second.
Then, on Dec. 17, Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio), chairman of the House subcommittee on interior and related agencies, wrote a letter of protest to the White House. Regula pointed out that the scaffolding was part of a multimillion-dollar effort to refurbish the monument's exterior stone work, which might be damaged or soiled by the display.
In addition, he wrote, such a fireworks display would be a "desecration" of "one of the most important symbols of the nation's capital, a monument to the father of our country, and a symbol of our patriotism and Democracy."
At the White House, a millennium gala coordinator said all precautions had been taken and no problems were anticipated. Grucci said the waterfalls were too small to be harmful.
But the National Park Service was still worried.
On Monday, the Park Service test fired one of the waterfalls at the monument, and didn't like the results. The agency "became concerned that there might be some slight soot or something, which would require the cleaning of the whole monument," said Stevens, the legendary producer of the Kennedy Center honors, said in an interview Wednesday.
A solution had to be found, or the countdown might have to go.
The program was saved by plastic. "The solution was to erect a polyurethane sheet over the whole west side of the monument," Stevens said, "500 feet."
In addition, the producers agreed to ignite the waterfalls only on the monument's protected west side and to forgo the unprotected north and south sides.
"We all wished to take every precaution to make certain that it was totally safe," Stevens said, and to exert "the last full measure of devotion to the monument to our founding father."
For the Gruccis, "It's an honor for our family," Phil Grucci said. "This is one of the major benchmarks of our careers, if you will, in the pyrotechnics and the fireworks industry.
"Having the opportunity to do the America's millennium, certainly it's a moment that when you sit down and you speak to your children and grandchildren, as the years go on, this is one that's going to be one of the highlights."