In years past, Rich spent weeks tending to the logistics of setting up, overseeing, and cleaning up what was once the largest fireworks show west of the Mississippi, the Fort Vancouver 4th of July Show. Happily, the organizers and sponsors didn’t have enough money to host the show this year.
Originally, Rich and I were going to take a sailboat out on Lake Washington and watch the many shows in the area; however, he was asked by Western Display to oversee the Renton fireworks show. Rich hesitantly agreed.
The show is just over twenty minutes in length with a manageable 220 shells on a barge opposite a large park in Renton, which is at the South end of Lake Washington. Around 20,000 people in the park, boats, and the surrounding area were expected to see the show.
Even better, Rich felt the show could be set up with just five people: Rich, myself, Chris (Rich’s son), Shawnie (Chris’ wife), and John (Chris’ friend from college) who lives near Everett and works at Boeing.
On Friday evening, Chris and Shawnie drove up from Camas, Washington and spent the night at our house. Saturday morning, we packed up the cars, grabbed some cinnamon rolls I’d baked the day before, and headed to Kenmore, which is at the very Northern tip of Lake Washington and around 7 miles from our house. The barge was opposite Kenmore Air so we were able to see seaplanes take off and land throughout the day.
We got a good start loading up and wiring the shells (right). Towards noon, Chris and Shawnie dashed down to the VA hospital in Seattle to visit Shawnie’s dad who is recovering from an accident.
Rich, John and I nibbled on some food from TacoTime then finished the wiring, including the task, I enjoy the most… wiring the boxes. Most of the fireworks you see in a professional show are various sized shells fired from mortars. For the Renton show, we had 4- and 5-inch shells.
The rest of the show consists of boxes of fireworks (bottom). Inside the boxes are rows of heavy cardboard tubes filled with explosive powder. When a box goes off, the rows of tubes ignite, one-after-the-other, creating an explosion of color and sound. The explosives in the boxes don’t go as high as shells, but the effect is magical!
I was glad when Chris and Shawnie returned to help Rich lay-out the cables because it was getting quite hot and I was running out of steam. Plus, the barge and tugboat pushing it were going to leave within the hour. Before leaving, we made sure we had everything we needed for the long ride down Lake Washington, including subway sandwiches and bags of Cheetos, Doritos, and SunChips.
Lake Washington is the second largest lake in Washington with a surface area of 21,600 acres and 22 miles in length from Kenmore to Renton. On the west side is Seattle; Kirkland and Bellevue are on the east.
The trip from Kenmore to Renton took around 2.5 hours, which was surprisingly fast considering the tug boat pushing the barge wasn’t very big. Along the way, we passed gorgeous houses and mansions including Bill Gate’s house, which from the water is easy to miss because it blends into the landscape and looks like a peaceful lodge in the Adirondacks.
To keep a barge in one place – a necessity for a fireworks show – a tugboat captain has to constantly watch a GPS and adjust the location of the barge accordingly. The barge we were on, however, has two huge steel posts or spuds that can be lowered to hold the barge in place. You can see one of the spuds in the far right hand side of the picture below. By dropping the spuds, the tugboat captain was able to turn off the engine of the tug and also enjoy the show. Joining the captain was a deckhand and his family along with two other families who brought numerous ice chests, blankets, and sleeping bags.
Throughout the day, the Renton fire marshall came aboard the barge and conferred with Rich about the show and safety procedures. Once we left Kenmore, however, the marshall had to hitch a ride with the Seattle Harbor Patrol to get to the barge. It must have been an exciting ride because the police boat has three 250 horsepower engines that enable them to rapidly speed across the water. Here’s a picture of Rich chatting with the marshall prior to the show.
At 9:45, we collapsed the canopy we’d set up, folded up our lawn chairs, donned our life vests and other safety equipment, and got ready for the show.
Surrounding the barge were motor and sailboats, kayaks, canoes, and jetskiis. From the hills, around the lake, we could see fireworks bursts from homes and parks. Every direction, there were sparkling lights from houses, boats, and fireworks.
At exactly 10:02 the show started with a bang. For twenty-two minutes, fireworks explode over my head. And because I was so close to the mortars and boxes, I could feel every burst as it lit and whooshed into the air.
As soon as it was safe to walk on the deck, we used flashlights to look in the mortars and make sure all of the shells went off. The tugboat captain turned on a generator that powered a huge light on the barge so we could stack the boxes, and pick up the wires, tin foil, fuse boxes, cables, and riff-raff from the spent fireworks. The "men" took apart the wooden containers and disassembled the firing control panel. It took about an hour to clean-up.
For the rest of the trip, we sat on the deck, bundled in fleece jackets, listening to the sounds of the water and watching dozens of boats zoom to their destinations as the fourth of July lapsed into the fifth. We got back to Renton around 1:30 a.m., quickly unloaded our personal items, drove home, took a quick shower and climbed between the covers.