Son carries on explosive family tradition of fireworks

Friday’s fireworks show over the Mississippi River will last only 18 minutes. But for the 26-year-old pyrotechnician, the 1,300 or so fiery blasts over downtown Baton Rouge will mark the end of weeks of focus.

Brandon Spear grew up with fireworks as a family business. His father, David Spear, has designed and overseen the fireworks shows at 11 Super Bowls and two World Cups, as well as games for LSU, the New Orleans Saints and the Oklahoma City Thunder. He also started the first major fireworks company that was based in the Gulf South and planned the annual Baton Rouge show for more than 25 years.

The elder Spear is again handing over “WBRZ’s Fireworks On The Mississippi,” Louisiana’s largest Fourth of July display, to his son.

For Brandon Spear, the main thrill comes from pleasing the crowd, not the explosions themselves.

“We’re not in this business to blow up stuff,” he said. “That’s not what we’re here for.”

Over a three-day stretch leading up to the show, a crew of nine has spent the days and evenings in stifling heat loading firework shells into plastic firing tubes on barges docked in Port Allen. The biggest shells, 10 inches across, cost a couple hundred dollars each and are larger than bowling balls. The shells reach heights of 1,000 feet before exploding about 1,000 feet across. The team secures the biggest pipes with sand so they don’t fall over when the shells are fired, said Linda Howard, a pyroshooter with this year’s show.

“Everyone wants to get as close (to the show) as possible, but we’re right on top of it, pushing the button,” said Jeff Danevich, a firefighter from Sandusky, Ohio, who came to the Capital City to help as one of the show’s pyrotechnicians.

Brandon Spear said he has grown up with fireworks for as long as he can remember. He would often follow his father’s hectic travel schedule, riding in the tugboats that pushed the barges out over water in places like Hawaii, the Virgin Islands, Finland and Puerto Rico. He said he had unparalleled views of flares. David Spear would bring home extra fireworks and set them off on his son’s birthdays.

But Brandon Spear said his parents were nervous when he wanted to join the family business, adding that a pyrotechnician has been ranked among the five most dangerous jobs in the country. Eventually, though, they got used to it.

“When that’s all you’re exposed to, there’s not much of a choice,” he said of joining the family business.

Brandon Spear has spent the last three weeks picking and testing some fireworks himself. He chose shells that blast into the shapes of chrysanthemums and pillow trees. His favorite firework bursts into the shape of a gold palm tree. His supply is greater than any other show he’s planning to do this year.

When the show begins, Brandon Spear and one or two others will push a series of buttons as they watch from a “shooter shack” only 100 feet away that Howard said the crew will have built out of quarter-inch thick plywood and Plexiglas.

Spear has to watch for all sorts of problems. Sometimes a shell’s takeoff can knock cables away and render other shells useless. Shells can take longer to fire if the match, which is cotton string packed with gunpowder, frays or gets wet in the rain and takes so long to burn all the way to the shell that crew members might not notice until they are cleaning up and it suddenly fires, in a worst case scenario. Brandon Spear said a shell could even fire with enough force to knock tubes over and send shells firing in dangerous new directions.

Less than one hundredth of a second passes between Brandon Spear pushing a button and the shell starting to lift in the air. Their focus is on the results in the sky, making sure each shell reaches its proper height.

The older Spear said he thinks his son does a better job of making a show look like art than even he can. He considers himself more of an entertainer.

“When I finish a show and the crowd roars, and I hear that out on the barge … you’re like, ‘Man, they’re cheering for what I just put up in the air,’ ” David Spear said. “And I like that.”