Georgie the Pyro
By John Vogel
It made it 150 feet in the air before it exploded. Any average Joe would believe this to be enough elevation to safely detonate the world’s most massive firework, but in reality, it fell short. About 850 feet short. And there was a crater to prove it.
On that day in 1975 in Bellport, Long Island the goal was to set the record for the largest firework ever, and what good is a firework if it doesn’t go off and wow the crowd?
It was a basic Roman candle, filled with magnesium and launched out of a motor tube. The only difference was this Roman candle was a custom job weighing 800 lbs., mostly made up of gunpowder.
Instead it won for the lowest firework to ever be detonated.
It was the brainchild of New York socialite and writer George Plimpton. Plimpton (who you may recognize from a small cameo in Good Will Hunting) was Harvard and King’s College educated, spoke with a distinctive accent reserved for Northeastern upper class, and helped found and write for the Paris Review. World renowned for his exploits as a participant observer known for everything from trying out for the Detroit Lions, to landing a spot in the New York Philharmonic. In most instances, his accent and demeanor was more fit for a snobby country club. But his real passion wasn’t fine wine or draping a sweater around his neck. No, it was explosions.
At the tail end of World War II, George got himself pulled out of Harvard and pushed right into the Army. His specialty was demolitions, originally trained on blowing up Japanese sea mines. Once sent to Italy though, he was tasked with learning to drive tanks instead.
Returning home and back to Harvard, the lack of Japanese sea mines and government funded explosives resulted in his sight being set on fireworks. Providing explosive entertainment at parties in his New York penthouse, he eventually was named New York Cities Fireworks Commissioner.
So when the 800 lb. Roman candle arrived in Bellport, George believed his math was dead on. He nicknamed it ‘Fatman’ and spread the word that the world record would be set. With a planned detonation height of 1,000 feet, and a crowd of people clamoring to see history made, Georgie sparked it up.
History was made, indeed. But at 150 feet.
The explosives detonated and showered the beach in a sea of sparks, leaving behind a 35-foot-wide by 10-foot-deep crater. The launch was a total failure.
But instead of folding his cards, George decided to double down.
Fatman II had a lot in common with Fatman I. Similar construction, same contents, but weighing 200 lbs. more and requiring an elevation of over 1,000 feet to detonate properly and not create a crater big enough to park a motorhome.
Titusville, Florida played host to this attempt, and happened to be across the way from the Cape Canaveral launch pad. The residents of Titusville were pretty used to loud noises, bright flashes and ordnance being launched into the air. Fatman II left New York on a flatbed truck, only to break down in Paducah, Kentucky, requiring another truck to load and haul the payload. But the second truck also broke down and required a tow to its final destination. Perhaps ole Georgie should’ve heeded the omen.
Alas, 30,000 residents came out to see attempt No. 2 at the world record. Plimpton believed his calculations were correct. But all anyone saw, and heard, was 1,000 lbs. of explosives detonating a mere 50 feet above the ground. The blast was described as a “blinding affair,” and the concussion blew out 700 windows in the area. George Plimpton was quick to add it also blew out the pane glass window at the bank—something he was incredibly proud of.
Though he threatened to try a Fatman III, it never happened. George Plimpton would go on to represent the U.S. at the Monte Carlo Fireworks Festival, where he brought home the Gold for America.
George passed away in September 2003, miraculously with all of his fingers, toes and eyebrows intact.