Small Pennsylvania town makes large impact on Thunder Over Louis - WDRB 41 Louisville News

Small Pennsylvania town makes large impact on Thunder Over Louisville

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NEW CASTLE, Pa. (WDRB) - Not far from the rolling hills of western Pennsylvania is the sleepy community of New Castle.

It's a community that is home to about 23,000 people. Don't let that number or the look of "Everytown U.S.A." confuse you.

The town is on the map for two big reasons. The first being that it's the hot dog capital of the world. And while Coney Island is as legit as it gets in the hot dog game, it's not why WDRB made a special trek there.

"New Castle is the fireworks capital of America," said Michael Richards, Vice President of Operations for Zambelli Fireworks, which is the company behind the big blast off to the Kentucky Derby Festival: Thunder Over Louisville. The company is based in New Castle.

"Thunder Over Louisville is like the Super Bowl, World Series, Masters, everything rolled into one," Richards said. "It is a great deal of work for 26 minutes of fireworks. Fireworks seem to bring a lot of joy and happiness to a lot of people."

The work of putting on the largest fireworks display in North America, which dazzles thousands upon thousands, starts in Richards' far less flashy office in January.

"Our entire operation shifts over to Thunder mode," he explained.

Richards puts in 12 hour work days for weeks behind a computer using software that allows him to program each bang, along with every "ooh" and "ahh" to a soundtrack. "We just pick and choose the fireworks that we would like to see any particular time," he said.

Every explosion is very carefully thought out. "It's very accurate. It's very efficient," Richards said.

Timing can go down to a one-hundredth of a second.

"That's where Thunder Over Louisville is put to music, paper and computer. Behind these chained linked fences and barbed wire is where it physically happens."

It's a fortress of fireworks.

"There's a huge staff here in New Castle that are involved in preparing for Thunder Over Louisville," Richards said.

They meet often about Thunder, but work on the show much more.

By the time viewers at home see the show, nearly 30 people have had their hands on Thunder.

"It's a complicated process, but it's pretty simplistic when it comes down to it," Richards said.

Each person has their role.

Some Zambelli employees work on assembly. They carefully bag and pack each firework into a box that has a number written on the outside. That number corresponds with Richards' carefully crafted list, and tells anyone and everyone exactly where the firework goes and when it will be shot off.

"It's a matter of numbers," Richards said.

Meanwhile another employee focuses on  preparing the layout, wiring work and sequencing. That work is being completed using Richards' same set of numbers.

Most of Zambelli's product is shipped in from China, but the workers also make some smaller scale fireworks of their own.

"We test different color combinations, different formations of the mortar tubes to create different effects," said Zambelli. The testing can take up to a year.

This isn't bush league. The company has earned a reputation. And while that doesn't mean it comes without concern, it does come with the expectation that you're going to see one heck of a show that the employees here have a lot of pride in.

"(I'm) proud of our company (and) proud of all of us," said Richards.

You can watch this year's Thunder Over Louisville on April 23 on WDRB.

Copyright 2016 WDRB News. All rights reserved.

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