Big Beach, Big Bang in Wildwood

(Previously published in the Wildwood Leader)

Kimmel Schaefer says 22 years in the fireworks industry may have had an effect on his hearing. He can’t hear his wife tell him to take out the trash, but luckily he can still hear the ooh’s and ahh’s of the crowd at a fireworks show.

“It still gives me goose bumps,” he said.

Fireworks and Family

Fireworks on the Beach
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Shaefer’s father, Kim Schaefer Sr. started shooting fireworks in Dunbar, Penna. in1961, and after mastering his skills as a pyrotechnician, he started Schaefer Pyrotechnics in 1977. His son, Kimmel, learned all about fireworks at his father’s knee, but he went onto college and graduate school before returning to the family business. Fireworks get into your blood, Kimmel said.

As a boy, he spent summers in Stone Harbor and one of his dreams was to create a fireworks show for Wildwoods’ huge beaches.
“This is the show I wanted to have,” he said. He got his wish.

Schaefer Pyrotechnics spends a lot of time on Wildwood’s beaches these days. They coordinate a fireworks show there every Friday of the summer, funded by the Greater Wildwoods Tourism Improvement and Development Authority. Plus on July 4th, they are scheduled to put on a show that is the granddaddy of them all.

A Really Big Show

According to Patrick Rosenello, who manages the Boardwalk Special Improvement District (SID), it costs about $85,000 to put on Wildwoods’ summer fireworks shows—$5,000 for the weekly show and $30,000 for the July 4th show. The weekly program brings as many as 10,000 people to the prime viewing area on the Boardwalk, he said, and the Fourth of July show brings even bigger crowds.

“That show is going to be something else,” Kimmel said. With 25-27 minutes of fireworks, it will take tons of planning, lots of explosives, a team of six technicians and two days.

And while Wildwood is one of Schaefer’s biggest shows, it is only one of 69 that the company carries out over the holiday weekend. To accommodate the holiday rush, the company, hires some 500 part time employees. Kim Schaefer, Sr. will come back to work for one night to oversee a show in Narberth, Penna., and in Wildwood, Jack Serpico AKA Pyrojack, and his wife, Denise, are working double time this week to coordinate the weekly Friday show, in addition to the Big Bang of a show, scheduled for the Fourth of July.

Last Friday, the couple loaded up truck full of equipment at company headquarters in Ronks, Penna. and headed for the Jersey shore—but definitely not for a vacation.

First, they set up the weekly program, and then they turned their attention to setting the Fourth of July show.

An Ideal Stage in Wildwood

Wildwood’s huge beach offers pyrotechnicians an ideal stage. Fireworks are measured in diameter: the bigger the diameter, the bigger the display. But big fireworks, or shells, as they are known in the business, require 70 feet of clearance for each diameter of shell. For towns with smaller beaches, that means they are limited to using 3-inch shells, which create up to a 150-foot display.

In Wildwood, Serpico will launch a display using a variety of shell sizes up to 12-inches in diameter, creating up to 1200 feet of light per explosion.

Long before the show happens, however, an intricate choreography of colors, sizes and shapes is sketched out by hand with a pencil and paper before being programmed into a computer.

Fireworks on Wildwood's beach
The crates of fireworks cakes, set up for the July 4th spectacular

Then “cakes,” a configuration of tubes that hold the explosives, are set up on the beach and connected to modules that are fired in sequence, electronically.

A typical show can require more than a full day of hard labor on a sun-drenched beach, followed by a late night of fireworks. Plus, once the explosives are in place, someone must be close by at all times to prevent accidents.

Fireworks can be a dangerous business.
“Nothing good happens when something goes bad with fireworks,” Kimmel said.
Jack Serpico agrees there are risks, but like Kimmel, fireworks are in his blood. His grandfather, who started a fireworks company in 1906, was once injured in a fireworks accident and decades ago two of his employees died while putting on a show at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

“It’s rare, but it happens,” Serpico said.

14 years ago, Serpico gave up his career as an attorney for the big lights of the Fourth of July sky, and neither the inherent risks nor the hectic summer schedule seem to dampen his enthusiasm.
He said his current job doesn’t compare at all to his former one. There are way fewer negatives, and many more positives. Plus, nothing quite moves him like the nostalgic explosion of thunder and lights across a summer sky.
It can be stressful, but once the details are worked out and the equipment is in place, Serpico said he becomes a spectator. And then, “I yell and holler like everybody else,” he said.

Wildwoods’ July 4th show is launched from around Pine Avenue at 10 p.m. on Friday, and it can be viewed from around the island and beyond. Music is piped in via speakers on the Boardwalk, and 98.7 the Coast broadcasts the musical score, as well. Fireworks can also be viewed at 10:30 p.m. in the Wildwoods every Friday throughout the summer.

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