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Brothers' fireworks launch career

By day, Mark and Dan Ferguson toil under the hot Florida sun, pressure cleaning and painting buildings. But when the sun goes down, the brothers light up the sky.

Now in their mid-30s, the Fergusons recently started their own pyrotechnic company called Pyrobros. If you attended the fireworks display on July 3 for the Inverness Olde Town festival, you saw their work.

Although the brothers own American Pressure Washing & Painting, their interest in fireworks and putting on pyrotechnic displays is fast outdistancing that business. When it's show time, they hire other employees to work full time at the pressure washing business so they can tend to the fireworks.

The Fergusons act as special event coordinators, display choreographers and operators. They also function as their own hazardous materials team when transporting fireworks by cargo plane or truck.

They have supplied fireworks for Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston concerts and the 1996 Olympics. They also did the display for a Monday Night Football Show from Jacksonville.

Ask Mark what his favorite shell is, and he's likely to say, "Oh, Boy! You want me to pick out of about 2,000 shells?"

He does pick.

"I like the golden willow. When it breaks in the sky it has long, palm tree-type tails. It has a very draping effect. It goes off and fills the whole sky and lasts about a minute. It's a soft, golden color."

The pair recently closed a deal with Lidu American to become the company's exclusive fireworks distributor in the United States. Lidu's American operation is based in Elkton, Md.. It is the largest fireworks company in China. Last month, the brothers traveled to Jiang Xii in China for a personal tour of the factory.

On their way back they stopped over in Hawaii and began negotiating with Walt Disney World to provide fireworks. Mark said that Disney often uses a shell that produces a white outline of Mickey Mouse in the sky.

With no formal pyrotechnic schooling available, training often is a matter of learning from others in the business. For Mark, his mentors were Fred and Leigh Partin, a husband-and-wife pyrotechnics team that was responsible for the 1996 Inverness July 4 fireworks display.

After helping the Partins set up some of their larger shows, Mark said, "That was it. After that I was hooked!"

As Mark showed more interest in fireworks, the Partins introduced him to the owners of Fireworks by Santore. A 106-year-old fireworks company, Santore has been in Florida since 1973. It has handled displays for theme parks, concerts, the 4th of July and the 1996 Olympics.

It took Mark six years to obtain his pyrotechnic license and become certified by the Pyrotechnical Guild International. He had to pass a written test on safety precautions, definitions of fireworks and their ingredients. Now he is certified to stage displays internationally.

Dan left the Army last year to join Mark and the Santores. His recent experience with weapons and explosives in the Army put him ahead of the game, but even with previous training, he is required to be certified and is working to obtain his license. Because of his background, he sometimes sets up shows under the Santores' supervision.

Pyrobros recently was awarded an international importers license that will allow it to deal with shows around the world. Dan says the brothers hope to "eventually break out on our own."

"Our entrepreneurial dream is to come up with some innovative ways to provide fireworks to cities around the world," Dan said.

One of Dan's and Mark's biggest concerns are the millennium celebrations.

"There's going to be a shortage of fireworks," Dan said. "There are going to be (year) 2000 celebrations all over the world. People are ordering fireworks already.

"We're trying to figure out who we want to sell to. We'd like to pick one or two key shows (to put on their displays.) For the rest we would just sell them the fireworks."

Dan manages most of the paperwork for the Pyrobros from a 31-foot, 1972 Airstream travel-trailer based in Crystal River near Lake Rousseau.

Having put on nearly 500 shows around the world for the Santores, the Ferguson brothers started Pyrobros so they could work closer to their Crystal River home.

With three phone lines and a Web page under construction, the brothers hope to do a lot more business from home and less traveling.

"We don't want to manufacture the product," Dan said. "We want to distribute it and become a display company. That's how Pyrobros is set up."

The brothers also are searching for a large lot in Citrus County to set up a warehouse.

"There is no distribution center in the Southeast," Dan said. "Every time we need product we have to drive to Maryland."

Setting up a show can take five hours to five days, depending on its size. Big shows can require as many as 20 people and the use of electrical and manual fireworks launchers.

After the flurry of firing the shells, the brothers said that the biggest pleasure is the feeling of accomplishment after each show.

The crew waits 30 minutes after each show to be sure it is safe for them to scan the grounds for unexploded shells. Then they pack up and head home.

For Dan Ferguson it's, "a full day's work, (for) 20 minutes of fun."