Fireworks explode behind the Lincoln Memorial to mark July 4, 2015, in Washington, DC. Garden State Fireworks, a family-owned company from New Jersey, created that display and will create this year’s show. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

When it comes to fireworks, no two are alike.

“Fireworks are very much like snowflakes,” said Chris Santore, choreographer at Garden State Fireworks in New Jersey. “Even the ones with the same names always look a little different.”

As a choreographer, Santore coordinates the production of fireworks displays, including this year’s Fourth of July celebration over the Mall in Washington. He times the fireworks to a soundtrack of pop and patriotic music and also handles technical elements such as setup, execution and cleanup — which, together, require a 25-person crew working for 10 days.

How do they work?

But the work begins several months earlier. Fireworks are constructed in Garden State’s factory using cardboardlike shells, Santore said. These shells are filled with gunpowder and what are known as stars, or clumps of chemicals that control the colors and effects of a firework.

“It’s not unlike a piñata filled with explosives,” said Santore, who also serves as Garden State’s lead pyrotechnician. This means he oversees the safe handling and igniting of the fireworks.

Stars, despite their name, usually resemble little marbles or cylinders. Although the stars’ chemical makeup determines the firework’s colors, their shape decides the firework’s effect. Garden State will showcase a variety of effects for the Fourth of July show, including standard fireworks, known as peonies or chrysanthemums, and those that blink and whistle.

“We use the broadest spectrum” of fireworks, Santore said. “We custom-manufacture for this event.”

A large amount of potassium nitrate in the gunpowder propels the firework into the air once its fuse is lit, Santore said, thanks to what is known as a “lift charge.” Fuses can burn for 2½ to 5½ seconds, depending on the firework’s size, and Garden State uses a computer to light the fireworks in time with the music. With this technology, Santore said, the pyrotechnicians can control when a firework explodes “down to a one-one-hundredth-of-a-second accuracy.”

Fireworks used for large displays such as the Mall’s can reach heights upward of 1,500 feet.

“A show like the D.C. Mall is what I call vertical, because of the monuments,” said Julie Heckman, executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association. “Everything has to go up, and it has to go up high.”

Centuries of entertainment

Historians agree that gunpowder was initially discovered in ancient China, Heckman said, but Europeans are credited with creating fireworks displays. Families that immigrated to the United States from Europe more than a century ago brought fireworks with them, many settling in Pennsylvania. Others, including Santore’s family, settled in nearby states.

“These professional display companies, they’re fourth-, fifth-, sixth-generation companies,” Heckman said. “Many of them [came] from Italy and brought the trade with them to the United States.”


With the Washington Monument in view, people watch fireworks explode over the Mall for Independence Day celebrations in 2015. Fireworks for that annual show in particular must fly extra high to be seen over the monuments in the city. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

“These are family recipes, in terms of the manufacturing, that really haven’t changed much over the years,” she said. “It’s a trade that’s passed down from generation to generation.”

Santore’s great-grandfather, Augustine, opened his New Jersey fireworks plant in 1890, and the business has stayed in the family ever since. Chris Santore, who is 43, said he began working at Garden State at a young age, alongside his father and uncle. This is the family’s fifth year in a row putting on the Mall celebration, although Garden State had also done it in earlier years.

Keeping with tradition, Santore said attendees should expect the Fourth of July celebration to be loud and spectacular.

“When you’re in a venue like Washington, D.C., and you’re catering to an audience spanning more than a mile from the launch location,” he said, “you’re looking for your biggest, loudest, [most] intense production.”

If you go

What: Fourth of July fireworks display over the Mall.

Where: The fireworks will be visible from many points across the Washington area. Some viewing areas near the Washington Monument and Reflecting Pool will be accessible only through specific entry points.

When: Tuesday at 9:09 p.m.

For more information: Visit nps.gov/subjects/nationalmall4th/fireworks.htm.