April 14, 2008
The 19th annual “Thunder over Louisville” fireworks extravaganza on Saturday — the largest fireworks display in North America — kicked off three weeks of festivities leading up the the 134th Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 3. The carefully choreographed display, which each year requires a staff of 200 to plan it, opened with music from 2001: A Space Odyssey. A medley of ethnic, classic rock, patriotic and rap music reverberated throughout downtown Louisville and southern Indiana, returning occasionally to the 2001 theme.
Fittingly, for a show whose theme was “Out of This World,” astronauts Garrett Reisman and Peggy Whitson, who were 205 miles above Earth in the International Space Station, flipped the switch to start the show from the command center in the Galt House Hotel. This year marked NASA’s 50th anniversary, and April 12 is also remembered as a key date in manned space flight history: Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person to orbit Earth on April 12, 1961, and NASA resumed manned space flights with the space shuttle Columbia on April 12, 1981.
Featuring the latest pyrotechnics from “the first family of fireworks,” Zambelli Internationale of New Castle, Pennsylvania, the show also included unusual heart-shaped fireworks and vivid blue stars. Some of this year’s new fireworks also came from China, Italy and Spain. Eight 400-foot barges on both sides of the 2nd Street bridge serve as the staging grounds for the annual “Run for the Roses” kick-off. A signature event of the 28-minute show is always Thunder’s “waterfall” effect, in which fireworks appear to cascade endlessly from the bridge.
Visitors came from all over the country to see the spectacular display, which is the pride of the state. Last year, the Armed Forces Network rebroadcast the fireworks show to millions of people in over 150 countries on July 4th; this year’s display will also be broadcast on Independence Day. A Discovery Channel fireworks documentary termed Thunder “the Grand-daddy of them all.” About 350,000 people attended this year’s show, down from the 800,000 visitors last year. Unseasonably cold weather and rain lasted throughout the day, with show producer Wayne Hettinger commenting: “With the weather, it’s remarkable we’re able to do the show as planned.” Kentucky Derby Festival CEO Mike Berry added: “Derby is Louisville’s gift to the world. Thunder is our gift to ourselves.”
An accompanying air show, which lasted from 3:00 p.m. until the fireworks started at 9:30 p.m., included dozens of military aircraft such as Apache helicopters, F-15s, several aerobatic teams, a B-2 Stealth jet fighter and an F-22 Raptor. Oddly, a flock of geese flew in formation over the Clark Memorial Bridge around 6:45 p.m., as fighter jets roared across the sky.
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Photo credits: Bill Luster, Amber Sigman and Matt Stone / The Courier-Journal
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