DILLON, S.C. — In the shadow of a 200-foot-tall Day-Glo sombrero, the pyrotechnic pilgrimage to the state of South Carolina reaches its annual peak, and one sound is loudest of all: the rattle of shopping carts.
At South of the Border, a Mexican-themed fireworks emporium inches from the North Carolina state line, tourists load up on "artillery shells," bricks of firecrackers, coffee-can-sized sparkling fountains and brightly wrapped miniature explosives with names such as "Just Shoot Me" and "Unleash the Beast." Many travelers detour hours, even days, to get here.
"It's absolutely overwhelming," said Bernie Yaglowski, a Pennsylvania chef who pulled off the road Sunday to fill his trunk with fireworks banned at home. "It's like driving a truck with big tires. They got stuff here that's definitely macho."
There's no better place to get your pyro fix than the Palmetto State. With some of the most liberal regulations in the country and surrounded by states that prohibit even sparklers, South Carolina is a well-trodden island of gunpowder. For every truck stop or burger joint, there's a roadside fireworks stand flapping with American flags. State officials say the number of vendors now exceeds 1,000.
"Country Hams. Hermit crabs. Pecans. P-Nuts. Fireworks, fireworks, fireworks!!!" reads a billboard near Hilton Head.
Here they don't mess around with smoke bombs and snakes. They deal in the big stuff.
"When I think fireworks, I think South Carolina," said Julie Heckman, executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Assn. "They sell the most powerful items for consumers and they sell it year round."
Safety concerns aside, the national firecracker trade is only getting hotter. Americans doubled their annual consumption of fireworks in the last decade.
And business is so brisk in South Carolina that nearly one third of the $600 million in fireworks sold nationwide last year came from this state alone, said Tom Elliott, who lobbies for fireworks retailers at the state Capitol in Columbia.
"Sometimes the political boys try to mess with our business," Elliot said. "But they know how important it is to tourism. Most people who buy our fireworks don't live here."
A glance at the collage of license plates in the South of the Border parking lot this past weekend proved that. Practically the entire Eastern Seaboard was represented, including New York, New Jersey, Delaware and Georgia, which ban all types of fireworks. North Carolina and Pennsylvania allow some, but no firecrackers or flying, fiery things.
Thus the look of joy on the face of 16-year-old Chris Nielubowicz when he stepped into All American Fireworks in Hardeeville, S.C., and told a saleswoman:
"We're driving up to Pennsylvania for a family reunion and all they got up there are, you know, little stuff. So, I was hoping to get something, that, that, you know. . . ."
"Would really impress 'em?" the woman said.
"Well, let's see what we got here," and the next thing Chris knew he was standing face to face with a stack of dragon rockets packed with 50 milligrams of gunpowder, the maximum load allowed by federal law.
Fireworks technology hasn't changed all that much since the Chinese discovered 1,000 years ago that if you stuff enough black powder into a bamboo tube and light it, it makes a huge bang.
The basic ingredient is still black powder, or gunpowder, a mix of potassium nitrate, charcoal and sulfur. Sprinkles of metals add color. Blue is the hardest one to produce. Flour and other substances are used to slow down the burning to produce a longer, brighter glow.
The Chinese are still king of the market, supplying 90% of all U.S. retail fireworks. They even have pyrotechnic universities. Often, their products strive to tap into American culture.
One big seller this year is "Titanic," a paper boat that lights up section by section and then explodes. Another is "Old Glory," a $20 aerial display papered with pictures of American flags, people saying the pledge and, curiously, a little blond boy sitting at a desk.
"They sure make 'em purty," said Don Rogers, owner of All American Fireworks.
They also make them dangerous. In 1999, the last year for which statistics are available, 8,500 Americans were hurt by fireworks. Forty percent of them were under the age of 15.
There have also been some spectacular fires, such as the 4,300-acre blaze in Ojai in 1999 started by two boys playing with bottle rockets. Add to that several recent fireworks plant explosions, including a fatal one in Alabama.
Although Eastern states might be the most uptight about fireworks, the South, not surprisingly, is thought to be the most hospitable. Tennessee even allows 10-year-olds to buy them. Georgia is the only state in the Deep South where all consumer fireworks, including sparklers, are illegal.
Some areas of California, Nevada and other Western states allow the sale of nonexplosive, nonflying fireworks for a 10-day period around the Fourth. But certain municipalities, including Los Angeles and more than half the cities in L.A. County, ban them entirely.
That might surprise shoppers here at South of the Border. Another hot item this holiday season is a $10 fountain wrapped in black and stamped with the Hollywood sign.
Times researcher Edith Stanley in the Atlanta bureau contributed to this story.