They erupt in Target stores on opening day. They shoot from the gloved finger of a sales rep during a product launch. They cascade in iridescent waterfalls behind beaming couples in wedding pictures.
TPyrotechnic displays, once the province of KISS stadium concerts and George Lucas film sets, are increasingly brought indoors - for weddings, bar mitzvahs, and corporate displays. The manmade comets are feeding an American preoccupation with all things bigger, brighter, louder. In the wake of the Rhode Island tragedy, they're also raising pointed questions about the safety of such theatrics.
Though the nightclub incident was unusual, experts say the proliferation of indoor displays raises the risk of drama turned deadly, if codes aren't followed and if operators don't know what they're doing.
Most events, to be sure, go off without incident. But as footage from the Great White concert sears into the American imagination, the pyrotechnics industry is coming under new scrutiny - and bracing for a backlash. It's trying to reassure a jittery public that last week's disaster was an anomaly - the tragic misstep of a few pyrotechnic cowboys defying regulations and common sense.
Nationwide, more than 10,000 indoor shows are staged annually, with injuries "virtually unheard of," says John Steinberg, president of the Pyrotechnics Guild International Inc.
The popularity of indoor fireworks - "proximate pyrotechnics," in industryspeak - is a recent phenomenon, born of rock 'n' roll. What Jerry Lee Lewis started in the '50s, when he produced "Great Balls of Fire" from a piano with the aid of a Zippo lighter, came to full fruition at the Monterey festival in 1967. There, in his US debut, Jimi Hendrix garnered immediate fame by making a bonfire of his Stratocaster guitar.
Now, at shows from Britney Spears to Ozzy Osborne, audiences expect a mini Fourth of July by the second encore, or, at the very least, bursts of flame intense enough to burnish a marshmallow at 50 yards. On Thursday, in an attempt to excite a club circuit where fog machines are passÃ©, the band Great White ignited several sparkler fountains in the low-ceilinged nightclub, with tragic results.
"People are trying to draw bigger crowds and one of the ways of doing that is to make the shows flashier," says pyrotechnician Gerald Beardmore, James's brother. "[Pyrotechnics offer] more bang for your buck, and more bucks for your bang."
But proximity fireworks aren't just for musicians. Indoor fireworks are now used to trip the light fantastic at ballrooms, shopping malls, and convention centers. "People might not remember what they ate at a wedding, but they'll remember the display," says Harry Basiliko, lead pyrotechnician for Fireworks for All Occasions in Maryland.
As pyrotechnics have taken off, codes have followed. But even the most comprehensive standards - the National Fire Protection Association's code 1126 - are just guidelines, making for a legal patchwork as scattered as a sparkler's spray. While some states, like California, have rules stricter than the federal guide, others have only basic fire codes.
James Beardmore recalls a fireworks show in rural Virginia for a college basketball game. His inspector was from the local volunteer department, and greeted Beardmore's demonstration with more awe than rigor. "He said, 'is it like the stuff they use on WWF? Boy is that cool!' " Beardmore recalls. "He could have been so easily snowed."
Tom Ginsberg of Wald's All-American Display Fireworks in Kansas City, Mo., was a "little incredulous" to learn he needed no permit at all in Omaha, Neb., at a recent show. "This has been a no-incident type of thing for so many years that it's become more and more lax," he says. "Now I believe you're going to see a big change in states adopting 1126."
Not surprisingly, fireworks used near audiences get the most stringent guidelines - from proximity to crowds and operators' training, to fire-safety codes and an elaborate inspection process. "Any one of those things would have prevented" the accident in Rhode Island, says Mr. Steinberg.
Who's to blame will be the subject of endless probes. Band members say they had permission to use pyrotechnics. Club owners deny giving - or even being asked for - permission. In the end, outsiders say, that may be beside the point. Using fireworks in a confined structure is risky enough. To do so without going through a permit process is folly. As Steinberg puts it: Regulations do "little to constrain people who don't use [them]."
By all accounts, innovations in recent decades have made the synchronized shimmers and syncopated booms safer - especially compared to early days, when pyrotechnicians mixed their own powders. "They're so much more controlled," says Gerald Beardmore. "Effects can be timed out precisely." Now, following disaster, enthusiasts fear a broad ban or costly new regulations on proximate pyrotechnics. Already, staging such a show isn't cheap: A small display runs at least $1,800, with permits and a standby fee for the fire department, says Francis Pilkerton, a Maryland pyrotechnician.
That, say some, is part of the problem. For a band making only a few thousand dollars a show, the cost of following safety and regulatory procedures can be a powerful incentive to cut corners, putting an audience at risk.
Rhode Island's governor has declared a moratorium on the displays for smaller clubs. Connecticut and Massachusetts will review their rules as early as this week.