New Castle, 8 square miles and some 22,000 people, is tucked into the green hills of Western Pennsylvania. In the early 1900s, its tin mills attracted so many workers that New Castle was one of the fastest-growing cities in the country. Among the new arrivals were Italian immigrants with a specialized skill: making fireworks. Over the years, five families set up companies in the area, and New Castle became the fireworks capital of America. The town trademarked the nickname in 2006, so make that The Fireworks Capital of America™.
The fireworks business hasn’t experienced explosive growth—hey-o!—but it hasn’t had a bad year in a long while, either. It’s now a billion-dollar industry. The companies that stage shows for July 4 (and festivals and weddings and New Year’s Eve) account for one-third of that. Two of the biggest, Zambelli and Pyrotecnico, remain in New Castle. Together they produce almost 5,000 fireworks shows a year; more than one-quarter of those take place around the Fourth of July, making up about half of the companies’ annual revenue. Some 17 million pounds of fireworks are shot off by professionals in July. Amateurs explode 10 times that amount.
Photograph by Ross Mantel for Bloomberg Businessweek; Data: National Fire Protection Association
About 2 million fireworks, of all shapes and sizes, 3,200 varieties in total, are stored year-round at Zambelli’s plant outside town. Plant is a bit of a misnomer: It’s primarily a packaging, storage, and distribution facility now. Most of the manufacturing has moved to China. Lou Zambelli, the eldest member of the clan, still handcrafts fireworks when he’s up to it—there are videos of him on YouTube, stuffing and wrapping explosives with the calm of a cobbler.
There’s no welcome sign at the plant. A chain-link fence surrounds the 200-acre property. Two guards are on duty during the busy season, watching over the loaded trucks; the first ones leave in late June for towns across the country, the last few on the morning of July 4. The 70 small buildings spread throughout the compound are built with reinforced concrete, so that an explosion would go up, not out. The doors are open on some, another safety precaution. Inside the magazines, as they’re called, employees don’t wear uniforms, hard hats, or even gloves.
Doug Taylor, who was brought in six years ago as the first non-Zambelli to run the company, casually reaches his bare hand into an open cardboard box. He pulls out a shell wrapped in green paper; it’s a small one, 2.5 inches in diameter. It’s made of kraft paper and contains explosive powder and stars, the chemical pellets that create colors and images. All around him, boxes sit on shelves, full of explosives, their fuses sticking out the top. The shells, with names like Chrysanthemum, Peony, Palm Tree, and Waterfall, mostly range in size from 2 inches to 6 inches. Each inch correlates to a 100-foot rise in the sky. A 6-inch shell is 13 times as expensive as a 2-inch shell, so the smaller ones really provide the most bang for the buck, so to speak. “We’re encouraging people to have shorter shows, about 12 to 15 minutes, with more density,” Taylor says. “Attention spans have shrunk, even for fireworks. Most audiences want a finale from beginning to end.” Zambelli’s July 4 shows can cost more than $100,000, though a typical town spends about $15,000.
Zambelli employs six packers, who begin assembling the July 4 shows in February. Each show has a script, sometimes choreographed to 100ths of a second, and the packers have to know which fireworks can substitute for the requested ones if inventory is low. In late May, Zambelli hires about 20 local workers to help load the fireworks onto rental trucks, and the plant operates 12 to 15 hours a day, seven days a week right up until July 4. Even at the busiest time of year, there’s no rushing around when it comes to fireworks. And since the 45 employees are spread out among all the buildings, it’s surprisingly quiet, too.
The company hires an additional 1,300 technicians to do shows across the country. They tend to be locals who know the police and fire chiefs. “We have landscapers, surgeons, lawyers, and mechanics who shoot for us. Some were taught by their parents. But we do lots of training,” Taylor says. Even so, there’s a shortage of skilled labor. “We had to turn down business this year, because we didn’t have the technicians or the equipment.” Most shows are now lit with electronic firing systems, rather than manually with flares, which makes the work safer but the logistics more complicated. Each site needs the same equipment for almost the exact same couple of hours. There are no economies of scale on July 4.
Illustration: Jennifer Daniel; Photo: Alamy; Data: American Pyro
Stephen Vitale, 46, the great-grandson of Pyrotecnico’s founder, has worked at the company since he was 13 and has run it since he was 26. Pyrotecnico operates much as Zambelli does. “We’re a logistics and distribution company that happens to do pyro,” says Vitale. “We feel we do important work. Plus we’re all adrenaline junkies.” Still, he’d like to decrease Pyrotecnico’s reliance on Fourth of July shows by offering other pyrotechnics and special effects year-round. “We brought in a full-time chief financial officer a few years ago, and he said some of this just doesn’t make sense.”
The industry’s reliance on China has become a problem, too. Factory owners in China can’t find enough workers to take the dangerous jobs, and that country’s growing middle class is buying more fireworks. Vitale and Taylor have to place orders a year ahead because of delays. Everyone in the industry hopes some alternative suppliers will emerge, maybe in Vietnam or Mexico. They don’t expect it to happen in the U.S. “The price of labor is too high, and there are environmental concerns,” Vitale says.
On July 4, Vitale will put on a fireworks show by hand at the New Castle Country Club. He’s done it with a couple of friends for the past 20 years. “We light it and run. There’s no music. It’s old school.”