Marathon residents and guests are used to an up-close and personal 4th of July fireworks show. One section of Sombrero Beach is cordoned off and the crowd camps on the other.
“They sit as close as legally allowed,” said Randy Mearns. “Frankly, if the beach is closed and folks have to sit farther away. I don’t think they are going to be happy with the end result. As much as I hate to say it, I think the postponement of the show is the proper thing to do.”
So, bad news: no fireworks. Good news: that’s the only way the Keys Weekly finally scored an interview with Mearns, the guy in charge of setting up and setting off Marathon’s amazing show. At this time of year, he’s usually too busy.
According to Mearns, it takes about 400 man-hours from start to finish to put the show together.
“Ten guys, working 40 hours,” he said.
Mearns continued to set up the show until it was finally canceled on July 1, in a special call meeting of the Marathon City Council. Last Saturday, he was working in the June heat, positioning the “guns” — or tubes to shoot the fireworks out of — on the point at Sombrero Beach.
The good news is that Marathon owns the fireworks and Marathon has Mearns. The show will probably be rescheduled.
Mearns possesses four key qualifications for Marathon’s top pyro tech job: he logged 25 years on Marathon’s volunteer fire department; his commitment to the Marathon community included serving as one of the first Marathon City Councilmen after the city incorporated; he has a license to possess low-intensity fireworks prior to use; and he owns Marathon Electric Sign and Light providing the professional skills necessary for a modern fireworks show.
Mearns is married to Dori, and has four grown children — three girls and one boy. He is grandfather to seven — all boys.
“We’re working on a baseball team,” he said, grinning.
Here’s a little more about Mearns and the history of fireworks in Marathon:
Where are you from? I moved here in 1968 at 12 years old from Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. My dad worked five jobs and saved every penny because it was his dream to move to the Florida Keys. My parents bought Kingsail Resort and operated it for 12 years before selling and retiring.
How did you get involved with Marathon’s volunteer fire brigade? I was actually in high school in the Key Club and we were tasked with raising money for the new volunteer firehouse. I became friends with the volunteer firefighters. Back then, it was more of a drinking brigade who held their meetings at the Brass Monkey. After high school, I joined the force for about 25 years — including serving as the fire rescue chief for 10 years and then 12 years as fire chief.
What did you do in the meantime? Out of high school, my plan was to join the Navy. I received a special appointment to the Naval Academy from former U.S. Rep. Dante Fascell … but I found out I was color blind. That was very disappointing. I ended up taking a job as manager of Swift’s Camera and Radio Shop that was located in the Winn-Dixie shopping plaza. Then I went to paramedic school and spent some time working for the ambulance service and realized I didn’t want to be a doctor. In 1981, a friend of mine, an electrician, approached me about a partnership to buy Marathon Electric.
What were Marathon’s fireworks like “back in the day”? I think I became involved in about 1976. At the time they were shot off from the little point across the canal from the yacht club. People would hang out at the beach there and we would have homemade raft races and things like that. It was probably a 5- to 10-minute show that cost about $2,000.
Did the show get bigger? Absolutely, as the crowds got bigger, we moved the staging zone further west to the aqueduct property for everyone’s safety. Except we had a hard time burying the equipment because of the coral rock. One year one of the gun racks fell over and shot straight forward towards a barge with a static display on it, setting it off. I had two guys on the barge that had to dive in the water!
What was the process of lighting fireworks like back then? Well, we used metal guns — pipes with caps welded to the bottom. And we had “loaders” and “shooters.” The shooters would light the fireworks with a flare and the loaders would go behind them and put fresh fireworks in the guns.
When did the fireworks show move to Sombrero Beach? How did the show evolve? We moved the show in the mid-90s, I think. By then we had some training and one of our instructors told us how to put the show to music and use timing. Now we use plastic tubes (sections of oil pipeline-quality plastic) and an “electric match” to ignite the fireworks. It’s all controlled from an electronic board set up near the staging area and the whole show is set to music.
What sets Marathon’s fireworks show apart? Our show lasts about 45 minutes. We can do that because the city owns its own equipment and has qualified volunteers to set them off. When you hire someone to do the job about one third of the money goes for rockets, another third to rent the equipment (guns and wiring) and the other third to pay the operators. Marathon can do a $60,000 show for about $18,000 because we only pay for the rockets.
What’s your favorite type of firework? The willow is my favorite.
What’s your least favorite type of firework? The one that blows up before it comes out of the gun. We call those firepots.
What do the rockets look like? They come in all sizes up to 6 inches, the largest that are legally allowed. The lift charge on the bottom propels it into the air and there’s a time delay until it reaches maximum altitude (600 feet in two seconds, fast!). There are more explosives inside that set off the firework and make it explode in the air.
Do you have any hard and fast rules about fireworks? Treat them with respect.
Are you surprised to find yourself in this line or work — pyro tech or electrician? After I joined the profession, I realized almost all of the men in my family are in the electrical business. And I stumbled into this.