A Maltese Adventure

I received an SOS call a couple months back from the guys at PyroSure Malta. The conversation went like this:

‘The guys from Mqabba, Tal-Gilju Fireworks Factory are competing in the Maltese Fireworks Festival on April 29th 2013; they no longer have a firing system and we have been approached to provide one.’ They have 65 modules so how difficult could it be? Being pyro nuts we immediately agreed. They had helped with the show design and it appears that in Malta they don’t do multi shot candles or large cakes or time delays on shells: everything is single shot.

‘We need to borrow a dozen or so modules.’

‘OK, no problem: I can send some equipment over; what exactly is it you need?’

‘We need 3500 cues for the show plus some for the National Anthem and some spare, you know, just in case.’

I sat in stunned silence for what must have felt like an eternity: ‘What do you mean 3500 cues? How long is the show?’

‘Oh, 13 minutes with music and a couple without music’. I thought they were kidding me.

‘How many shells are you firing?’

‘Around 1000; you will love it, there’s even two 16s.’

‘Fine other than the system; do you need a hand?’

‘No, we will manage but if you want to come over you are more than welcome.’

I thought I would ask the obvious: ‘Have the Mqabba guys ever fired a show this big?’ Silence.

‘No.’

‘Have they enough mortars and racks?’

‘No, but they will borrow enough.’ 

Fine; I shipped the equipment and booked the flights. I mentioned it to a few customers and suggested they may want to come on the trip. Jon and Claire from Pendragon arranged the accommodation: very generous of them indeed - all inclusive £40 a head per day. I am of course assuming he’s not wanting paying for it. Arrangements were made, Nick Chase at Knights of Fire arrived before me; he was collecting the 7 seater rental car. Simon, Chris and Ryan from Fireworks Empire were staying later than everyone else so they booked a car too. Niels and his family were travelling from the Netherlands and they booked a car. That left Steve from the Fireworkers who was arriving at stupid o’clock. He was first by miles so I arranged for him to be picked up and taken to the factory. Boy, was he in for a rude awakening! He was handed a set of pliers and pointed towards 2300 single shot comets and mines all tied to the racks and a bunch of guys busily fusing and connecting to rails. I think Steve thought the first 6 hours were great fun but as the hot day wore on he began to regret his lack of sleep over the previous two nights. He threw in the towel to come to the airport to meet up at 19.30, the scheduled rendezvous with the remainder of the party. I arrived at the airport where Mark Borg was waiting. Steve looked so knackered I didn’t even recognise him.

The convoy set off to Marsaxlokk where the first night of the competitions was to be held. We found a spot based on the best looking bar in the harbour area. The 3 teams competing were from Malta, Spain and Italy. There’s not a lot you can say other than they alllooked pretty darned good. The wind was very light, just enough to waft the smoke away. The harbour water was very still and every shell reflected perfectly. All of the UK contingent agreed that Lieto Fireworks, Italy, were the best. Of course our Maltese contingent told us that Mount Carmel Fireworks was the best show and that the multi break shells had been especially good. Europla from Spain were a close third in our humble opinion. So it was back to the hotel for our share of the free local beer.

Next morning we made our way to the firing site. Normally at these international competitions there are stacks of neatly piled galvanised steel mortars, fan racks etc... Well, our guys were something else: they had a massive assortment of fibre glass and steel tubes with all manner of racking. There was obviously a plan somewhere as the mechanical digger was creating ditches for the mortars, lots of them, all over our section of the terraced field - in fact almost 1000 of them.

‘Hey Mike, what do ya think?’ someone called.

I was speechless and decided to go get a copy of the layout diagram. I contented myself that there was paperwork in many folders... OK, it was obvious someone knew what was going on so, knowing that digging ditches was best left to the experts, we went to have a look at the German lay out. They hadn’t started but Minhota from Portugal had many stacks of galvanized steel equipment; many had an array of candles neatly labelled with type, position and cue number. It wasn’t at the same level as the Japanese with the forklift truck dropping mortar racks into position by GPS but it was obviously a well-practised affair.

 

Entrance to the firing site had obviously not been considered, and not much thought had been given to the firing site either! The access roads were terrible and there was a tiny village perched on a hill overlooking the site - all very picturesque as they say. There was however a rather large expensive hotel overlooking the site from around 1km and I was told that money had allegedly exchanged hands to move the firing to this location. Having been given the firing site our trusty Maltese crew had made their own entrance. The perfectly formed wall of cut sandstone had succumbed to the force of the mechanical digger: perfect neo gothic had become an abstract pile of cut and broken sandstone. Content that we would have adequate ditches for the following day’s display we arranged to visit the factory. The convoy set off, led by a local, to the other side of Malta. The Lilly Firework factory is situated in the countryside close to Mqabba, round the back of the international airport; I think it shared a boundary fence.

As usual the reception we were given was typically Maltese: it was so friendly it was beyond words; every inch of this factory was going to be visited. That’s because every square inch of floor and bench space had been given over to the storage of single shot racks of every conceivable shape and size. If it was similar in size it had been strapped together. The lads from PyroSure Malta were still connecting fuses and attaching the wire to the rails. I think Steve felt guilty that he had not seen the task through to the end. I asked: ‘How many left to go?’ Alan and Robert looked at me:

‘Not many; we will be finished before 1a.m.’

Along with the competition, work continued with preparing shells for the festivals: hundreds of canister shells. Hundreds? no thousands of them: multi breaks of all kinds, single colours, multi colours, strobes, salutes, reports with no visible flash or smoke: ‘It’s my speciality; I make the canisters with salute, no smoke and no visible flash produced; it’s a special powder only my friend makes: colour shapes, triangles, squares, hearts, triangles in squares.’ The passion and enthusiasm is truly amazing and they don’t earn a penny.

Ellen Farrugia, the show designer, and I had a chat about the display; it was quite apparent that everyone had been dropped in at the deep end - this was a last minute thing - the Lilly factory had one month to manufacture every single item that was to be fired in the show. The firing site had been moved four times, twice in tha last three days, and the rules for the competition handed out two days previously. He was philosophical and was determined to prove that they had real talent. Let me tell you this was never in doubt.

I met Benny Farrugia - he has been making fireworks for half a century: his winding of string on the outers casing is like a work of art. He has been to the USA to give instruction on shell making even though, at the age of 17, there was an accident at the factory - he ran in to save his friend and was hit by the blast. He lost both legs and one arm. ‘I do it because I am passionate for my fireworks; I come here every day at 7 am.’

I believe him; he is truly inspirational. I think I could find him work counselling amputees. For twenty years he underwent treatment and, as soon as he was able, resumed working on firework manufacture.

All afternoon Big Jon Mellen, kept telling me: ‘Mike, we’ve got to get some of these over to the UK’. Let me tell you we have considered all options: it’s not going to happen this year; however watch out for entry applications from Malta for UK competitions. Ryan from Empire was shouting: ‘There’s more stuff for the display in here and here and here, here, here, over there ...’

Next morning we got to the site at 9.30, well some of us did! Pyrosure Malta guys were there looking rather glum. ‘We weren’t allowed access until 9am.’ We went to work, all shells in rows of 8, 4 left 4 right, all tails labelled; life was easy. Nick Chase was handed the cue sheets and we ticked off as we went along. He was tasked with hunting down missing shells and taking notes of any shells that were subsequently taken to be used elsewhere. For some reason I was extremely thirsty so drank a lot of water. Row after row after row; meanwhile Mqabba guys were erecting giant wheels using cranes and concrete blocks: lancework 20ft high and all sorts. Oh yes and digging more holes for mortars. Having finished connecting the fuses to the rails we moved on to connecting the rails to the modules and this is where it got complicated. Somewhere along the line the show design had been edited and the cue positions moved but not reassigned to new modules so, in effect, rather than firing 1 cue from position A, it also fired a duplicate from position B from the module in A. See, I am still confused. Simon from Empire figured it out and set about linking everything in parallel by daisy chaining the rails. I looked over to look at the German site: typical efficiency; they were strolling back and forth with pieces of foil. I was really confused: ‘Where’s the rest of their display?’ Steve from the Fireworkers had been keeping me calm all day, but now he was failing me: ‘Oh, that’s it, Mike: about 200 igniters, some delays, some candles and cat 3 cakes.’ I thought he was having a laugh but, alas, it was the Germans who were having the laugh.

We got to the centre of the set up. I was dying: it was so hot and I didn’t have any working clothes at all; I was wearing jeans and was evaporating into the Mediterranean sky. OK, right, its 3 o’clock and I was thinking that in two hours we would be done. We tested the cues, fixed any that were missing and jobs a good’un. 5 pm came and went and Ellen from Mqabba, the show designer, was working on the National Anthem and the two minute section without music. I was now thinking: 7pm we will be done; one hour for testing and we are out of here. Half past six I shouted at Nick: ‘Bring the folder over and list what’s missing.’ The list was produced and I fainted. No way!

‘Right, forget the mines, take the mines off the list and anything under 4.’

‘There’s nothing under 4’, Nick said.

‘OK, anything that’s fired as a single, take it off’.

‘They are all fired as singles ‘says Nick.’

‘Right let’s start at anything 8" and over and fix it.’

With drums of wire we set up a production line to connect the big stuff: we were all working like a well-oiled machine. OK, we were panicking. Right, half seven, 30 minutes and we had to be off the field. ‘Alan Bujega? Where is Alan Bujega? Tell him to take the controllers down the road to the firing position; take Nick Chase with him and turn them on,’ I pleaded. Quarter to eight and we hadn’t even looked at a live controller screen. ‘OK, first show, turn the modules on.’ Mark relayed my instructions to Alan and Nick who were by this time down at the firing position in the village. We switched on the 15 modules for the first show. Now you are assuming that the first show is separate and in its own corner of the field? Well it’s not, it’s spread everywhere. There were two modules missing from show 1. But not to worry, we now had two plans drawn up on cardboard stolen from the German firing site. Two modules were found and turned on - only three cues missing. Ellen assigned two of his guys to fix to 3 cues. Now the second show modules were switched on, then the third show modules. I won’t ever forget this, modules 2 and 17 were not there and module 37 had flat batteries! We had to find 2 and 17, turn them on and change the batteries in 37.

 

‘Load the firing script for show 2; that’s controller 1 right?’ I said to anyone who was listening, hoping the right person would hear me. ‘What time is it? 2010 hrs; are you serious?’ I continued, not sure if anyone was listening. ‘OK load the script for show 3 into controller 2; that’s right tell me it’s right? Tell me what’s missing; read out the list,’ I said to Mark who was beside me again with his two way radio. OK Controller 2 Module 07 A1, Module 07 E3, Module 07 E4… OK, read it faster. Ellen check the list and see if there’s anything that’s critical.’

‘Module 45 A2; it’s the Maltese Sign’, he says. Ellen headed off with his headlight on because it was now pitch black. We dealt with the critical stuff and moved to the side of the field. There was something inside me niggling. ‘OK arm everything’, I asked Mark to relay to the firing team. Everything armed: module 37 had low power, again. ‘Sh**, bring a spare module for controller 2’. It’s re addressed 37,;the connections are changed over and the firing script transmitted to module 37 and armed.

‘What time is it? ‘Time was flying by now; three hours had passed in a flash! Five to nine, right, we are out of here, firing at 2100 hrs. I ran down the road into the village through the police cordon and onto the firing position. Nick Chase looksed at me and said: ‘You’re leaving it a bit fine Mike.’ We both burst out laughing. Someone told us we couldn’t stay there without a badge: ‘Ich spreche kein Englisch, Arschloch,’ I said in my best German. He got the message and walked off.

The show began. The Maltese National anthem started and, within a few seconds, there was a low breaking shell (I forgot to mention that there was now a 30 knot wind blowing from left to right directly across the site which was perched on a hillside covered in scrubland). ‘Phew, that was a bit low,’ said Nick. It probably wasn’t as bad as I am making out but stuff was certainly moving at a rate of knots to the west, and nothing was moving east: the two stage helicopters, as the Maltese described them, were more akin to hovercraft, travelling with a velocity horizontal to the ground speed wind (30)+ propulsion (x) - they were shifting. To the west of the site there were of course bushes, lots of them. Unfortunately, with the velocity of said pyrotechnic articles, they were not going to clear the bushes. The hillside burst into flames. The display was all action; even the slow bits. It was clear that some shells were not firing from the left but we put it down to the inferno. Then, a deafening silence; my heart stopped - dark sky, no music. Ten seconds; twenty seconds: I shouted at Alan: ‘What’s wrong?’ He shrugged: ‘Nothing, the judges told us to put a forty second gap in between sections.’

By the time Nick picked me up off the floor the display had resumed. After fifteen minutes, and with the charge of the light cavalry blasting out of the PA, the sky filled with the final volley of dozens of 6 inch shells; there was meant to be calm but every car alarm was sounding so it must have been a good un. Meanwhile, on the hillside, bushes were ablaze, the grass was alight and the firing site was on fire. But, fear not, the comforting sound of the fire engines coming to the rescue brought relief. Relief was short lived however: their concern was for the surrounding hills. The PA announced a slight delay while the fires were dealt with. I was peering into the distance trying to calculate where the fires were in relation to our site. I thought we must be losing some modules. One phone call later Alan announced: ‘Don’t worry Mike, it’s the German site that’s on fire.’ I looked up and I could tell the Germans were not a happy bunch. The fires on the hillside were brought under control and soon they were all extinguished. There were no injuries; everyone was safe and there were hundreds of happy people. Except Ellen: he thought a few of the shells were not quite right.

That’s what it comes down to though: there no such thing as perfection in pyrotechnics as far as a pyrotechnician is concerned.