July Fourth a blast for fireworks showman

Technicians put priority on planning

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It’s a busy time of year for “Crazy” Craig Butler.

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Richard Swartzlander (left) and Chase Butler set up fireworks for the show to be held after the Augusta GreenJackets baseball game.  SARA CALDWELL/STAFF
SARA CALDWELL/STAFF
Richard Swartzlander (left) and Chase Butler set up fireworks for the show to be held after the Augusta GreenJackets baseball game.

The Thomson pyrotechnician was driving a highly explosive load of fireworks for a weekly summer show there Tues­day, only to turn around to begin preparations for tonight’s fireworks display in downtown Augusta.

The riverfront show will pack 154 five-inch exploding shells, the largest available, among the 1,372 explosives launched during the 21-minute, 49-second exhibition.

At $20,000, the show costs nearly $1,000 a minute. Behind each minute is an abundance of preparation and regulation.

“It’s an unbelievable amount of work to put on a display,” Butler said. His team will begin setting up the launching area at the Fifth Street Bridge at 8 a.m. today.

The business is all about regulation, he said.

The Na­tion­al Fire Protection Asso­ciation code requires 70 feet of distance per inch of shell, so the five-inch shells require a minimum setback of 350 feet.

Even with a full-time job as a construction superintendent, Butler set off 46 shows last year, often using his signature smiley-face shells.

Tonight’s show will feature a 300-foot waterfall of sparkles cascading from the bridge into the river, plus a special surprise.

“I’m not going to disclose it, but it’s never been done before,” Butler said.

He advised spectators to come by boat or get seats on Augusta’s levee.

“You have to be on the levee to enjoy the fireworks,” he said.

Deputy City Administrator Bill Shanahan selected Catawba, S.C.-based East Coast Pyrotechnics over Pennsylvania-based Zambelli Fireworks for the job, though both firms list Butler as the pyrotechnician.

Butler isn’t Augusta’s only well-known pyrotechnician.

Augusta Com­mission member Joe Jackson also is a certified pyrotechnician contracted by East Coast Pyrotechnics.

Jackson said keeping his certifications current requires clearance by the Trans­portation Safety Admin­is­tration and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco Firearms and Explosives, and he has to have a commercial driver’s license with a hazardous materials endorsement to transport the explosives, he said.

“We always pray before we shoot,” he said.

“We get together and say a prayer as a team so we’ve got our angels around us.”

Getting his start at Augusta Mall shows when he was 16, Jackson has shot Pa­triots Park’s Fourth of July display for a decade, despite his wife’s serious burn from a “freak accident” when a mortar exploded in 1999, he said.

He estimated he’ll shoot $17,000 worth of paper-wrapped black powder, about 5,000 pounds of explosives, into the air tonight.


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