Painting the Sky: Meet the Crew that Lights Up Loudoun

You might not know Scott Donahue, but you may have seen his work. It’s hard to miss.

Donahue is an event producer with East Coast Pyrotechnics, which puts on the largest fireworks shows in Loudoun. The company produces displays in Sterling, Lovettsville, Willowsford, South Riding, Leesburg, Franklin Park, and Ashburn Village. This year, his crew personally is setting up the shows in Sterling, South Riding, Leesburg, and Ashburn.

On Tuesday, Donahue and his crew were on the driving range at the South Riding Golf Club, setting up the evening’s fireworks display in the summer heat under the eye of a fire marshal.

It’s an all-day job. The crew arrived early in the morning to start setting up, then let a fire marshal check their staging before they can start loading shells into the mortars. Then, if all goes well: hours of waiting until the show. And Donahue said he’s fine with that.

“The more you rush around … you’re not thinking clearly on the safety side of it,” Donahue said. “So if we’ve got nine hours to wait around, we’re OK with that.”

Working around pounds of explosives is a dangerous job to anyone who isn’t careful. Donahue said he’s learned a lot in the 20-plus years he’s been running fireworks shows.

“It’s a loaded gun, basically,” Donahue said, referring to a mortar tube loaded with a fireworks shell. “With the power these things have, you can put a piece of plywood over that and it shoots right through, so you don’t try to put your head over the mortar.”

It’s also a responsibility. The team has been trained by the American Pyrotechnics Association and has to pass a test from the state fire marshal’s office. There’s constant security at the company’s main storage facility all the way in Locust Grove, a five-hour round trip away according to Donahue. And once the mortars are loaded, someone has to be on site at all times keeping an eye on them.

“The main thing is being comfortable on a show site, being able to make decisions and know exactly what’s going on,” Donahue said.

Donahue has worked on fireworks shows since he was 16 years old.

“The fireworks company was probably 10 miles from my house,” Donahue said. “When I was in high school, before a lot of regulations and stuff like that, all of the coaches would shoot [fireworks] and all that since they have summers off. So one of my coaches took me on a show when I was 16, and I’ve just been doing it ever since.”

Now, during a show, he and his crew will be at least 100 feet away. The show is controlled electronically and synched to music. All the while, he’ll be monitoring a computer panel and holding a dead man’s switch that will stop the show entirely if he releases it.

The rest of the crew will be watching for shells that launch but don’t detonate. At which, point, he said, “basically there’s nothing you can really do except for soak it in water.”

After the show, they’ll take any of those back to Locust Grove to be disposed of—or handed over to bomb squads for training.

And then it’s on to the next job. Fireworks may be most closely associated with the Fourth of July, but it’s a year-round job. East Coast Pyrotechnics puts on shows for spring and fall festivals, Memorial Day, numerous minor league baseball teams, and the Atlanta Braves.

“All that stuff keeps us busy,” Donahue said.

A crew from East Coast Pyrotechnics loads shells into mortar tubes for the grand finale of the fireworks show Tuesday in South Riding. (Renss Greene/Loudoun Now)

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