Spectators watch from Coronado in San Diego as an entire Fourth of July fireworks… (James Gregg / Associated…)
SAN DIEGO — For more than a decade, the Fourth of July here has ended with the Big Bay Boom, a glittering fireworks display over the harbor that is the West Coast home of the U.S. Navy.
This year's show, advertised for weeks in advance, promised to be even bigger, splashier and louder: synchronized to patriotic music on the radio and a live broadcast on a cable channel. A crowd estimated to be several hundred thousand lined the bay to await the 9 p.m. start.
But the show, set to last for 17 minutes, ended in less than 30 seconds when the pyrotechnics, which had been carefully arranged on four barges and a pier, launched simultaneously.
The sky blazed briefly with mostly white, yellow and orange light. A series of loud explosions sent smoke billowing into the sky as the crowd expressed its amazement with oohs and ahs.
Then it was over and disbelief set in. One question dominated: "Is that all there is?"
Organizers later offered a mea culpa to reporters: a computer glitch, maybe due to a virus or other corruption, had caused the "premature ignition."
San Diego remained true to its mellow reputation: There was no overt anger, even among those who had staked out a vantage point for hours. No police cars were overturned, no trash cans set on fire — the kind of rowdiness that sometimes occurs when big crowds in big cities suffer disappointment.
At the Midway carrier museum, where many had paid for an ideal spot to view the show, only a few asked for a refund. "The fireworks loss was a disappointment but our guests were quite understanding," said Midway marketing director Scott McGaugh.
Observers elsewhere were quick to express dissatisfaction with the stunted event.
Kristy Calisto agonized via Twitter: "OMG. Tell me that did not happen? I'm almost in tears. People have been camping out for hours in the cold. OMG."
The sun had barely made its appearance Thursday when the Big Bay Boom producer and the New Jersey-based fireworks company were promising to make amends. The company offered to do next year's show for free.
"We take 100% responsibility," said August Santore, co-owner of New Jersey-based Garden State Fireworks, which puts on dozens of shows annually. All the systems had tested out perfectly in the hours before the show, he said.
H.P. "Sandy" Purdon, founder and executive producer of the annual Big Bay Boom, vowed to "make it up to San Diego," maybe with a future fireworks show.
It was Purdon, who owns Shelter Cove Marina, who convinced local officials and business owners in 2001 to support an Independence Day fireworks show in the "natural amphitheater" of the San Diego Bay.
This year's show cost about $400,000, including $145,000 from the Port of San Diego, the show's official sponsor.
Once expenses are paid, the surplus is donated to the Armed Services YMCA in San Diego. In 11 years, the YMCA has received more than $400,000 for its programs helping wounded military personnel and their families.
On Thursday, Purdon tried to remain philosophical about the boom that went bust.
"When you have 20,000 fireworks going off in 15 seconds, it's quite a show," Purdon said. "But it was not the show we planned."