Dudas works for East Coast Pyrotechnics and has been putting on fireworks displays for 15 years. His introduction to pyrotechnics came when he helped a co-worker put on a show and from then on, he was hooked. At that time, he was dating his now wife, Hillary, and asked her if she wanted to go along.
“She said, ‘yea I’ll go,’ and my friend wondered if she could handle it,” he said. “She’s been my partner ever since.”
There’s extensive schooling and licensing involved before an individual can become an “operator.” Potential pyrotechnicians have to go through extensive background checks, safety and terrorist classes.
“I never used to carry a gun, but I do now,” he said. “Just about every year, we have someone drunk or something come into the shoot site. I’ve had people try to get in my truck.”
Dudas said that he almost killed a lady one year. A shell went up, but it didn’t go all the way up and it blew up about 10 foot off the ground.
“It literally went right by her head. If it’d hit her, she’d be dead,” he said. “We’ve had intoxicated people get belligerent with us. It’s never happened here in Lincolnton though.”
Those not on Dudas’ crew are not allowed in the shoot site, which is a 300-foot area around the mortars. There’s always the risk of someone trying to steal fireworks. Once he’s on site, Dudas is not allowed to leave unless he takes the fireworks with him.
Fireworks are thought to have originated with the Chinese who stumbled on a natural firecracker. They’d roast bamboo, which explodes with a bang when heated due to its hollow air pockets, in order to ward off evil spirits. Chinese alchemists created a form of gunpowder by mixing together saltpeter, which is potassium nitrate, then a common kitchen seasoning, charcoal, sulfur and other ingredients. Advancements in fireworks have resulted in lots of colors. For example, strontium gives you red, barium, green. Copper gives you blue and sodium, yellow.
On Saturday, Dudas had two assistants, Hillary and Chris Mayhew working with him. In medieval England, the assistants to fireworks experts were known as “green men” because they wore caps of leaves to protect their heads from sparks. There’s still the danger of Dudas or his assistants getting burned and even catching fire from the debris from the fireworks raining down on them. The fireworks shells are encased in cardboard. Once they’re fired out of the mortars, the cardboard breaks up, sometimes it catches on fire and rains down on the workers.
“Sometimes it’ll fall on your shirt without you realizing it and you’ll start smoldering,” Dudas said. “Hillary’s put me out a few times. She always has to get put out.”
The display that Dudas was using on Saturday was a combination of manually lit mortars and electronic. The manual ones have to have their fuses lit by hand one by one.
“We use road flares,” Hillary Dudas said. “It takes a few seconds for it to go up. You don’t want to light them all in a row because you’ll have sparks and flames.”
It stands to reason that this is a dangerous job. Setting aside putting on the actual show, imagine driving a box truck loaded with fireworks down a highway. Dudas admits that there’s times he’s been scared, and he’s almost been killed.
“We were in Virginia doing a show and were shooting fireworks over the top of the town,” he said. “Hillary and another guy were at another station beside me. Where we were shooting, there was a dip.”
Sometimes when the shells go up, they don’t go all the way up. That’s called a low shell. It’s lit but doesn’t leave the mortar.
“It makes a really distinct sound,” he said. “It’s a deep gurgle and fire starts shooting out of the tube. Eventually, when the shell burns through to the point where normally it’d be up in the air and exploding, it explodes in the tube. This was a four-inch shell, I heard it start to gurgle and it was shooting out blue flames. I’ve never had one do that before. I turned and screamed ‘low shell’ and as I was diving, it blew up and burned my neck. I had a necklace on, and it burned an imprint of my necklace in my neck. I had wood shards in the back of my head. If I hadn’t dove fast enough, I don’t know if I’d still be here.”
Needless to say, when fireworks gurgle, hit the dirt.
“Out of the 15 years, there’s only been two or three occasions where anything like that has ever happened,” he said. “We go through a lot of training. You get so used to the sound that a shell makes when it goes off. If you hear an odd sound, you know something’s not right, so you check your area. If it’s a low shell, you hit the ground and cover your head.”
When the lights to the Lincolnton High School stadium went out Saturday night, it was Dudas’ queue to begin the show. They work in almost complete darkness. The only light comes from the road flares that they use to light the fuses. The three are in constant communication with each other, they have to be to be safe. When the shells that were part of the grand finale was going off, the light from the shells leaving the mortars revealed Dudas and his crew dancing and cheering around the mortars.
“I know we won’t get to hear it this year,” he said earlier in the day. “But to hear the crowd roar and clap is pretty cool. I do it more for the adrenalin, but there’s some satisfaction in making people happy.”