I’m not sure if Kim Titus is trying to freak me out or keep me safe, but he definitely has my attention.
We’re standing on a barge in the middle of Gastineau Channel at around 10 p.m. Monday night, surrounded by $30,000 worth of explosives. In two hours, this barge will become a deafening, blinding spectacle of firepower and patriotism.
Titus says that the barge isn’t the best place to watch the annual Fourth of July fireworks, but he describes it as “visceral.” He also says to be prepared for flaming shells to fall out of the sky and right back onto the barge. He looks at my North Face rain jacket and says I should have worn something cheaper, because flaming debris might burn holes in it.
“I’ve been trying to figure out the right word for what happens out here,” Titus says. “This is more shock and awe. You will feel the fireworks here, because you’re way close to them.”
Dancing and detonating
About an hour before that conversation, Empire photographer Michael Penn and I had boarded this barge, sharing it with about 15 other people and 700 fireworks. We got on the barge a little after 9 p.m., three hours to showtime.
Gary Stambaugh, the show’s organizer, greeted us. Smiling under his white mustache, Stambaugh spread his arms apart to gesture to the hundreds of fireworks.
“Welcome to the craziness,” he said.
This fireworks show dates back to Juneau’s mining days, and has changed drastically over the years. This is now the only electronically-run Fourth of July fireworks show in Alaska, Stambaugh says. Stambaugh has been helping run the show for 20 years and now runs the show, along with Sigrid Dahlberg.
Stambaugh and Dahlberg design the show and individually fire all 700 of the shells. Stambaugh fires off most of the bigger shells, while Dahlberg chooses how to “layer” the show, pairing specific fireworks together and deciding when to fire some of the lower-altitude fireworks.
“I have always liked to blow things up,” Dahlberg said with a laugh, “so I’ve always been drawn to it.”
They have a schedule laid out prior to the show, but they have ultimate control over how fast or slow the show goes. On nights with bad weather, they’ll tend to go faster. On nice nights, they might take it a little slower. Stambaugh also likes to time the blasts with songs, insisting that James Brown’s “Living in America” is the best song to pair with fireworks.
“You dance them into the sky,” Stambaugh said a couple hours before the show, moving his hips as he pretends to press the buttons that fire the shells.
‘We’re gonna have fire’
At around 11, a tow boat moves the barge into position, just near the cruise dock by the downtown library. All around us, amateur pyromaniacs are putting on their own shows.
During this ride over, Stambaugh gathers the volunteers and attendees in the middle of the barge for the safety talk. All of us are wearing hard hats and someone is distributing eye goggles and earplugs. Stambaugh and Dahlberg had just spoken to a weatherman who ensured them that the weather would hold out.
This barge abides by the buddy system, and each of us chooses a partner to ensure that if one of us goes overboard (or catches on fire from falling debris), somebody notices. There will be more flaming debris than usual tonight, as all of the firework crates are covered in plastic to battle the rain. When the fireworks go up, they’ll send chunks of burning plastic left and right.
“We’re gonna shoot through the plastic tonight, even though it’s not raining,” Stambaugh says. “We’re just gonna do it. That means —”
“We’re gonna have fire,” a voice to the right interjects.
The voice belongs to Tom Laurent, who is the technical expert. He’s been working this show since 1981, coming up from Petersburg to do it. He checks all of the connections, inspects the shells themselves and makes sure that nothing goes wrong.
As the clock ticks closer to midnight, everybody moves into position. Stambaugh and Dahlberg take their spots at the control boards, which are illuminated by a small lantern. Laurent sits in front of them, with three large buckets of water stationed at his feet.
Though he’s been up since 7 a.m., Stambaugh’s almost giddy with excitement. His phone lights up with a text from a friend on shore, telling him the crowd is getting restless.
“Everybody’s sitting there like, ‘Boy, I hope this show’s good. I drove all this way in,’” Stambaugh says, laughing. “They have no idea what we’re gonna surprise them with. We’ve got some cool-ass stuff.”
A speedy show
The show begins at exactly midnight, and the first couple explosions are jarring. I keep looking to my left and right, expecting a flaming shell to come down at any moment. Fortunately, nothing ends up falling on any of us, with the closest debris falling in the water about 20 feet to our right.
Stambaugh and Dahlberg were yelling out many of the shells just before they send them off. They call out some of their favorites, including one that has a small paper figure with the face of former Eaglecrest Manager Pete Huberth on it.
Huberth died a few months ago, and many of the volunteers on the barge knew him well. They taped a little model of Pete onto one of the shells prior to the show, and Dahlberg was the one who does the honors during the show.
“This one’s Pete!” she yells as she pressed the button.
“Here’s to you, buddy!” Stambaugh yells as the shell whizzed through the air.
As the fireworks are shot from their tubes, perfectly round rings of smoke rise up through the air, dissipating about 100 feet up. Echoes come firing back at us off the mountains on either side of the channel, making it sound like there are three or four shows going on at once. Flaming plastic flies through the air, landing on the deck and in the water.
The final explosion goes off just 18 minutes past midnight, making this one of the fastest shows they’ve ever done.
Laurent goes out and examines the scene, finding that eight shells didn’t fire. Usually somewhere between 15 and 20 of them don’t go off, Laurent says, so this was a pretty successful show.
The one mishap during the show was when a shell detonated while still in its tube. It stayed mostly contained, but still blew apart one of the crates. Laurent says this is the first time this has happened in around 12 years.
As the barge moves back to the other side of the Douglas Bridge, the smell of sulfur stays in the air and the crew continues to buzz. They discuss specific combinations of fireworks that stood out to them, marveling at aspects of the show.
The clock is about to hit 1 a.m. — everyone’s duties done for the night — when Laurent pulls out a bottle of Black Powder bourbon, fittingly named after an alternate name for gunpowder. He pours small samples into cups for the crew to share as a ceremonial gesture, already discussing what he thinks went wrong with the eight shells that didn’t fire. They’ll save those for next year.
“Tom, is this actually made with black powder?” someone jokingly asks.
Laurent looks up, his face lit by the lantern near the control board. He doesn’t say anything, but smirks slyly before pouring a drink and going back to talking about next year’s show.
Correction: A previous version of this article erroneously stated that technical expert Tom Laurent has been working the fireworks show since 1971. He has been working the show since 1981.
• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at firstname.lastname@example.org.