This family has been designing fireworks shows for 166 years. They explain how it's done.

Phil Grucci is rewarding himself after a three-mile run. He left work at 2:30 a.m. and had to be back at 8. But the run couldn't wait.

Phil Grucci (center-left) accepts an award for pulling off the largest fireworks show in history. Photo via Fireworks by Grucci/Facebook, used with permission.


"I got my three miles in, then I put a nice New York bagel onto the plate. I do that so I can have a bagel," Phil told Upworthy on his way out of the kitchen.

He could be forgiven for keeping an extreme schedule. It's three days before the Fourth of July, and it's Phil's job to coordinate and execute dozens of fireworks shows across the country.

"We have to make sure that a load coming up from our Virginia factory makes it through the city by six o’clock in the morning," he said.

Because of security concerns, no explosives can be moved through New York City during rush hour — 6 to 10 a.m. and 3 to 6 p.m.

Making sure that Phil's trucks make it over the George Washington Bridge with enough time to reach their destination on schedule requires careful planning, and the margin for error is razor-thin.


The George Washington Bridge. Photo by Jim Harper/Wikimedia Commons.

"It’s critical to hit that window before that closure happens," he said.

Every Fourth of July, millions of Americans watch fireworks explode — from beach blankets, out windows, or on TV.

Photo by Anthony Quintano/Flickr.

We watch them explode. We ooh and aah. We eat our soft-serve ice cream.

It's amazing.

But most of us have no idea how it all works.

"We start with a blank piece of paper."

Phil is the CEO and creative director of Fireworks by Grucci, a company that has been designing and producing fireworks shows since 1850, when Phil's great-great-grandfather began launching them over the Adriatic Sea in Bari, Italy.

Since then, no two of the company's fireworks shows have been the same.

Photo via Fireworks by Grucci/Facebook, used with permission.

"People don’t generally understand the amount of effort, and certainly creativity and planning, that goes into any firework performance," Phil said. "You don’t just have the fireworks sitting on the shelf labeled firework show A, B, C, D."

When work begins on a new show, Phil meets with a team of designers — a "think tank" — to start sketching out the show length, music required, types of fireworks needed, and dramatic arc of the show.

A Grucci fireworks show in New York City for Chinese New Year. Photo via Fireworks by Grucci/Facebook, used with permission.

Their ideas become a large spreadsheet, which then becomes actual, real-life explosives, specially manufactured at the Virginia factory, which are then transported by truck to the launch site and assembled by a team of dozens of pyrotechnicians — all in preparation for the big moment.

The process takes months. The show is often over in less than 20 minutes.

"It’s a tremendous honor for us to have that ability to be on stage — even though it’s not us personally — for our art form," he said. "Our imagination is on that stage for that 20-minute period of time."

For a firework event to succeed, it needs an emotional arc — a bold opening, followed by rising action, with a peak somewhere near the middle before "intermission," Phil says — like a Broadway show.

After the break, he explains, the tension should ebb and flow, until ratcheting up for a spectacular closing sequence, which should leave no doubt that the show is over.

"When we put on a good performance, a fantastic, well-thought-out, well-choreographed program, the show could be six-minutes long, and when the audience walks away fully entertained ... they think the show is 30 minutes," Phil said.

And the individual fireworks? They're "characters."

A fireworks show over Saks Fifth Avenue in New York City. Photo via Fireworks by Grucci/Facebook, used with permission.

"If you envision a stage, and you envision a blank script, the characters that are going to perform on that stage, in the form of choreography and dance, if you will, are the fireworks," he explained.

With each new performance, there's new fireworks technology for the team to learn.

"Recently, we developed another type of shell with a microchip built inside of it," Phil said.

While a traditional shell can explode up to a half-second off from the desired time, Phil explained that the detonation of a microchipped shell is predictable down to the millisecond.

"You can control where you can place a dot in the sky, at what elevation."

Each of these miniature dots, or "pencil bursts," creates a single dot. Connect 1,000 or more, and you can create fascinating, abstract designs in the sky, like the 600-foot high American flag the Grucci team created for a show commemorating the 200th anniversary of "The Star-Spangled Banner."

The American-flag effect. Photo via Fireworks by Grucci/Facebook, used with permission.

The company is also investing in ways to make its product more environmentally sound in order to remain sustainable for the long term, including biodegradable casings, smoke reduction, and removing certain chemicals from the manufacturing process.

"That's just as important as the aesthetic side," he said.

"I’m out in the water, so the service is a little sketchy."

Lauren Grucci is on the phone from a barge in the middle of Boston's Charles River. She's a member of the sixth generation of Gruccis to enter the family business.

Like her father, Phil, she's starting as a pyrotechnician, working with a team of 25 people to stage a show for an audience of an estimated half-million people.

A Grucci crew poses. Photo via Fireworks by Grucci/Facebook, used with permission.

"It’s a little hot out, but we were here last year, so we’re kind of familiar with it," Lauren told Upworthy.

For the ground teams, Fourth of July fireworks shows are like a gauntlet.

The shows are longer. The days are hotter. Everyone is out working. And there's little time to catch your breath.

"We’re out here all day, so it’s a lot of passion and a lot of stamina."

Each member of the team does a little of everything. They lift boxes. They set up the launch site with cranes. They hook up ordinance to computers.

"There’s a camaraderie that comes with it because you know that it’s kind of like a big family," Lauren said.

For Lauren, that includes her real-life family as well.

"There are some times when I’m on a show, and the pyrotechnicians are my uncles and my cousins and my brother and my friends," she said.

Phil Grucci (center) with family members. Photo via Fireworks by Grucci/Facebook, used with permission.

Working closely with her relatives has given Lauren some of her most treasured on-the-job memories — like the time she climbed the outside of a hop storage tower at Dublin's Guinness brewery to photograph a show with her cousin.

"We were kind of always raised to just do it; say 'yes,' and figure it out after."

It's a value, she explained that was instilled by her great-grandmother Concetta, who helped manage the shows when she was a baby.

Concetta Grucci and her husband, Felix, (far left) at the company's first factory. Photo via Fireworks by Grucci, used with permission.

"She was at every event, talking to whoever, whenever on stage. She just had a really great spirit and had a really great attitude about everything," Lauren said.

She thinks about her every time she launches a "gold willow" firework.

A golden "weeping willow" firework. Photo by Epic Fireworks/Flickr.

"That was her favorite shell, and it reminds me a lot of her."

Both technical know-how — and passion for the work — are passed down through the generations in the Grucci family.

"As a 6-year-old, I’d go out on the barge with my dad, and it was the coolest thing in the world to be out there with the guys and setting up the fireworks show," Phil said.

Too young to sail out with the boat, he would hang out on shore with his grandfather, watching his dad set them off from the barge.

"People that would come up to him and congratulate him and give him great wishes and congratulations, and that’s how I got hooked," Phil said.

He explained that his grandfather encouraged him to embrace change — atypical for the patriarch of a long-running family business.

Phil's grandfather, Felix Grucci, Sr. Photo via Fireworks by Grucci, used with permission.

"He began with shooting fireworks and lighting them with a cigar or a very tightly wrapped burlap bag," Phil said.

Of course, things are ... a little different these days.

"Now we’re shooting and displaying our fireworks with laptop computers."

He said he hopes his children and nephews will continue to embrace new technology as they move into leadership roles.

Perhaps most importantly, Phil hopes that — no matter what technological changes come along in the next 10 to 20 years — fireworks audiences continue to enjoy the show, blissfully unaware of the elaborate, frenetic ballet happening behind the scenes.

So if you spend this Fourth of July on a beach blanket, eating your soft-serve, not worrying about how the fireworks exploding above your head got there, that's by design.

Photo via Fireworks by Grucci/Facebook, used with permission.

As long as you leave wanting just a little bit more, Phil considers his job done.

"For me, that’s what the thrill is about. That’s what keeps you here at 2:30 in the morning and back in here by 8 the next morning to keep the machine going."

via ABC and Bee Gees / YouTube

A year ago a woman in Pearland, Texas helped save her husband's life because of her quick thinking and the sweet, four-on-the-floor disco beat of the Bee Gees.

After finishing a two-mile run with her husband Quan, Ganesa Collins watched him fall to the ground. "We sat on the bench, and he was in front of me," Collins told ABC. "I was standing behind and stretching, and he just went face forward. His head hit the dirt."

She quickly called 911 and the operator said he was having a heart attack.

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via ABC and Bee Gees / YouTube

A year ago a woman in Pearland, Texas helped save her husband's life because of her quick thinking and the sweet, four-on-the-floor disco beat of the Bee Gees.

After finishing a two-mile run with her husband Quan, Ganesa Collins watched him fall to the ground. "We sat on the bench, and he was in front of me," Collins told ABC. "I was standing behind and stretching, and he just went face forward. His head hit the dirt."

She quickly called 911 and the operator said he was having a heart attack.

Keep Reading Show less
True

Each year, an estimated 1.8 million people in the United States are affected by cancer — most commonly cancers of the breast, lung, prostate, and blood cancers such as leukemia. While not everyone overcomes the disease, thanks to science, more people are surviving — and for longer — than ever before in history.

We asked three people whose lives have been impacted by cancer to share their stories – how their lives were changed by the disease, and how they're using that experience to change the future of cancer treatments with the hope that ultimately, in the fight against cancer, science will win. Here's what they had to say.

Celine Ryan, 55, engineer database programmer and mother of five from Detroit, MI

Photo courtesy of Celine Ryan

In September 2013, Celine Ryan woke up from a colonoscopy to some traumatic news. Her gastroenterologist showed her a picture of the cancerous mass they found during the procedure.

Ryan and her husband, Patrick, had scheduled a colonoscopy after discovering some unusual bleeding, so the suspicion she could have cancer was already there. Neither of them, however, were quite prepared for the results to be positive -- or for the treatment to begin so soon. Just two days after learning the news, Ryan had surgery to remove the tumor, part of her bladder, and 17 cancerous lymph nodes. Chemotherapy and radiation soon followed.

Ryan's treatment was rigorous – but in December 2014, she got the devastating news that the cancer, once confined to her colon, had spread to her lungs. Her prognosis, they said, was likely terminal.

But rather than give up hope, Ryan sought support from online research, fellow cancer patients and survivors, and her medical team. When she brought up immunotherapy to her oncologist, he quickly agreed it was the best course of action. Ryan's cancer, like a majority of colon and pancreatic cancers, had been caused by a defect on the gene KRAS, which can result in a very aggressive cancer that is virtually "undruggable." According to the medical literature, the relatively smooth protein structure of the KRAS gene meant that designing inhibitors to bind to surface grooves and treat the cancer has been historically difficult. Through her support systems, Ryan discovered an experimental immunotherapy trial at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD., and called them immediately to see if she was eligible. After months of trying to determine whether she was a suitable candidate for the experimental treatment, Ryan was finally accepted.

The treatment, known as tumor-infiltrating lymphocyte therapy, or TIL, is a testament to how far modern science has evolved. With this therapy, doctors remove a tumor and harvest special immune cells that are found naturally in the tumor. Doctors then grow the cells in a lab over the next several weeks with a protein that promotes rapid TIL growth – and once the cells number into the billions, they are infused back into the patient's body to fight the cancer. On April 1, 2015, Ryan had her tumor removed at the NIH. Two months later, she went inpatient for four weeks to have the team "wash out" her immune system with chemotherapy and infuse the cells – all 148 billion of them – back into her body.

Six weeks after the infusion, Ryan and Patrick went back for a follow-up appointment – and the news they got was stunning: Not only had no new tumors developed, but the six existing tumors in her lungs had shrunk significantly. Less than a year after her cell infusion, in April 2016, the doctors told Ryan news that would have been impossible just a decade earlier: Thanks to the cell infusion, Ryan was now considered NED – no evaluable disease. Her body was cancer-free.

Ryan is still NED today and continuing annual follow-up appointments at the NIH, experiencing things she never dreamed she'd be able to live to see, such as her children's high school and college graduations. She's also donating her blood and cells to the NIH to help them research other potential cancer treatments. "It was an honor to do so," Ryan said of her experience. "I'm just thrilled, and I hope my experience can help a lot more people."

Patrice Lee, PhD, VP of Pharmacology, Toxicology and Exploratory Development at Pfizer

Photo courtesy of Patrice Lee

Patrice Lee got into scientific research in an unconventional way – through the late ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau.

Lee never met Cousteau but her dreams of working with him one day led her to pursue a career in science. Initially, Lee completed an undergraduate degree in marine biology; eventually, her interests changed and she decided to get a dual doctoral degree in physiology and toxicology at Duke University. She now works at Pfizer's R&D site in Boulder, CO (formerly Array BioPharma), leading a group of scientists who determine the safety and efficacy of new oncology drugs.

"Scientists focused on drug discovery and development in the pharmaceutical industry are deeply committed to inventing new therapies to meet unmet needs," Lee says, describing her field of work. "We're driven to achieve new medicines and vaccines as quickly as possible without sacrificing safety."

Among the drugs Lee has helped develop during her career, including cancer therapies, she says around a dozen are currently in development, while nine have received FDA approval — an incredible accomplishment as many scientists spend their careers without seeing their drug make it to market. Lee's team is particularly interested in therapies for brain metastases — something that Lee says is a largely unmet need in cancer research, and something her team is working on from a variety of angles. "Now that we've had rapid success with mRNA vaccine technology, we hope to explore what the future holds when applying this technology to cancers," Lee says.

But while evaluating potential cancer therapies is a professional passion of Lee's, it's also a mission that's deeply personal. "I'm also a breast cancer survivor," she says. "So I've been on the other side of things and have participated in a clinical trial."

However, seeing how melanoma therapies that she helped develop have affected other real-life cancer patients, she says, has been a highlight of her career. "We had one therapy that was approved for patients with BRAF-mutant metastatic melanoma," Lee recalls. "Our team in Boulder was graced by a visit from a patient that had benefited from these drugs that we developed. It was a very special moment for the entire team."

None of these therapies would be available, Lee says without rigorous science behind it: "Facts come from good science. Facts will drive the development of new drugs, and that's what will help patients."

Chiuying "Cynthia" Kuk (they/them) MS, 34, third-year medical student at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Kuk

Cynthia Kuk was just 10 years old when they had a conversation that would change their life forever.

"My mother, who worked as a translator for the government at the time, had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and after her chemotherapy treatments she would get really sick," Kuk, who uses they/them pronouns, recalls. "When I asked my dad why mom was puking so much, he said it was because of the medicine she was taking that would help her get better."

Kuk's response was immediate: "That's so stupid! Why would a medicine make you feel worse instead of better? When I'm older, I want to create medicine that won't make people sick like that."

Nine years later, Kuk traveled from their native Hong Kong to the United States to do exactly that. Kuk enrolled in a small, liberal arts college for their Bachelor's degree, and then four years later started a PhD program in cancer research. Although Kuk's mother was in remission from her cancer at the time, Kuk's goal was the same as it had been as a 10-year-old watching her suffer through chemotherapy: to design a better cancer treatment, and change the landscape of cancer research forever.

Since then, Kuk's mission has changed slightly.

"My mom's cancer relapsed in 2008, and she ended up passing away about five years after that," Kuk says. "After my mom died, I started having this sense of urgency. Cancer research is such that you work for twenty years, and at the end of it you might have a fancy medication that could help people, but I wanted to help people now." With their mother still at the forefront of their mind, Kuk decided to quit their PhD program and enter medical school.

Now, Kuk plans to pursue a career in emergency medicine – not only because they are drawn to the excitement of the emergency room, but because the ER is a place where the most marginalized people tend to seek care.

"I have a special interest in the LGBTQ+ population, as I identify as queer and nonbinary," says Kuk. "A lot of people in this community and other marginalized communities access care through the ER and also tend to avoid medical care since there is a history of mistreatment and judgement from healthcare workers. How you carry yourself as a doctor, your compassion, that can make a huge difference in someone's care."

In addition to making a difference in the lives of LGBTQ+ patients, Kuk wants to make a difference in the lives of patients with cancer as well, like their mother had.

"We've diagnosed patients in the Emergency Department with cancer before," Kuk says. "I can't make cancer good news but how you deliver bad news and the compassion you show could make a world of difference to that patient and their family."

During their training, Kuk advocates for patients by delivering compassionate and inclusive care, whether they happen to have cancer or not. In addition to emphasizing their patient's pronouns and chosen names, they ask for inclusive social and sexual histories as well as using gender neutral language. In doing this, they hope to make medicine as a whole more accessible for people who have been historically pushed aside.

"I'm just one person, and I can't force everyone to respect you, if you're marginalized," Kuk says. "But I do want to push for a culture where people appreciate others who are different from them."