Pa. Man Dreams of Big Stage for Fireworks

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Jon Loreto, 31, affable and square-jawed, with thinning, close-cropped hair, delivers heating oil. It's what pays the bills.

    But what Loreto lives for are nights when he gets to launch fireworks.

    "Going hot,'' Loreto announced at 9:12 p.m. Saturday, activating a digital fireworks firing system. About the size of a suitcase, the system sat on a folding table near a rental truck in a fenced-in lot north of Clipper Magazine Stadium.

    A screen blinked a warning in red. It said, "Armed.''

    Shortly, a walkie-talkie issued a report. It said the fire department had given the all-clear.

    Then a countdown could be heard from the stadium. "Three, two, one!'' called an announcer, along with more than 4,000 spectators who had watched NFL players slug it out in a charity softball game.

    The stadium's field lights went dark. Loreto pushed a "start show'' button. He watched as, 100 feet away, flames shot with a sizzling crackle from an 18-inch tube, or "gun.'' Two seconds later, a neon-green blossom burst overhead.

    The show was on.

    Loreto got his pyrotechnic start at 18 when he bought hundreds of dollars worth of fireworks in Maryland and set them off on the Fourth of July in a backyard near Wrightsville. With aerial high jinks that he admits "we should have been arrested for,'' the teen dazzled family, friends and the random passerby.

    These days, Loreto, a lifelong Columbia resident, gets paid to splash the night sky. A subcontractor with New Castle-based Pyrotecnico, Loreto will do 22 shows this season for the budget-conscious Barnstormers as well as bigger shows on the Jersey shore and elsewhere. His fireworks will light up downtown Lancaster on Friday night.

    Loreto's dream is to turn his passion into a full-time gig that allows him to design the really big shows, something on the scale of the Olympics' closing ceremony.

    In April, Loreto seized on an opportunity to show what he's capable of doing. A Pittsburgh-area festival called PyroFest announced a fireworks choreography contest, and Loreto got busy designing an entry.

    He huddled at a 32-inch monitor in his comfortably furnished basement den to create an 8-minute computer animation of a fireworks display synched with music.

    He chose five Disney songs, opening with "When You Wish Upon a Star'' and ending with the "Pirates of the Caribbean'' theme. He used software to meticulously match specific shells, candles, comets and other effects to the music.

    He chose Pixie Dust Willows, for instance, for the opening song. For ``Under the Sea'' he used round-bursting ghost shells to convey bubbles. To suggest an 18th-century sea battle for his finale, he chose dueling comets.

    On one Sunday, Loreto worked from before sunrise until 10:30 at night.

    "It shouldn't take you that long to script a fireworks show,'' he said, ``but I wasn't not going to win this thing.''

    On May 1, when the winner was to be announced, Loreto obsessively refreshed his computer screen for the announcement on PyroFest's website.

    "I cried for 15 minutes,'' he said of seeing his name posted as winner of the Fantasy in the Sky Fireworks Challenge.

    PyroFest performed his display _ all 906 devices _ at the festival on May 25. Watching his hard work brought to life, Loreto didn't tear up. A perfectionist, he noticed little things going wrong and winced.

    Rocco Vitale, Pyrotecnico's creative director and a judge for the contest, said Loreto's entry topped 25 others because of its theme, variety and cohesiveness.

    "Jon had that consistency throughout,'' Vitale said. "Each song was proportioned very well and ended really big, which was really important.''

    On Saturday about 4 p.m., before the softball game, Loreto and his assistant, Victor Salvatore, 32, of Mount Joy, set to work plugging electrical wires to the fuzes of more than 100 3-inch-diameter shells, each nestled at the bottom of its own gun. The guns were in arrays of 10 and positioned in 27 wooden racks.

    They also set up 11 "cakes,'' 49-tube devices that fire almost simultaneously. The wires ran to six circuit boards. From the boards, wires ran 100 feet to the firing table.

    Donning a hard hat and safety glasses after preparations lasting three hours, Loreto said, "All this for six minutes.''

    But what a six minutes!

    As dusk deepened in a mostly cloudy sky, Loreto pushed the button and the firing system did the rest. The launch site rocked with nonstop flashes.

    Loreto had timed the fireworks to synch with three songs _ "Heart Attack,'' "Dream On'' and "Awake and Alive'' _ that blared from the stadium's speakers.

    Smoke swept over the lot, which Penn Stone uses for storage. Loreto's head moved up and down as he checked his screen and then overhead.

    With their black powder electrically ignited, round after round of half-pound shells shot from the guns. The paper-encased, gingerly-packed spheres climbed 30-stories high, where they burst with a fizzing-popping-booming incandescence that delighted the eye and thumped the chest.

    The finale thundered like a percussive artillery barrage. And when it was over, the sudden silence seemed to echo.

    "I love fireworks,'' said Loreto, beaming as the smoke dissipated. "It's like a drug. It really is.''


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