To many, it seemed like a Fourth of July bait-and-switch

Posted: July 05, 2007

To many, it seemed like a Fourth of July bait-and-switch.

Told by city officials to disperse for their own safety, thousands of revelers trudged home disappointed, assuming that the city's annual fireworks show on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway had been canceled.

About 20 minutes later, brilliant red, white and blue explosions were seen rising over the Art Museum. The show had gone on.

Too bad that almost nobody was left to watch it.

Those who missed out were irritated, and some chalked it up as a Street administration slipup.

"What they did was totally wrong. I thought it was stupid. It wasn't fair to me and the people who stuck that show out," said Southwest Philadelphia resident Wendy Gines, who brought her two grandchildren to the concert and fireworks show.

Gines and legions of others couldn't fathom why city officials would dispel the crowd, only to start the fireworks show minutes later.

The city's short answer yesterday? It's hard to predict the weather.

An electrical storm appeared to be bearing down on the Parkway when officials told people to leave, said Loree Jones, the city's new managing director and the senior official on the scene Wednesday.

"Whenever there is a storm like that, people are generally advised not to be outside, in groups, under trees and standing in water," said Jones, who assumed her new post last month. "We had all those conditions."

Though it had been raining hard on the crowd for hours, thunderstorms had skirted the area until about 10:30 p.m., Jones said. When she received a report from the National Weather Service that lightning could be coming, she said, she had no choice but to dispel the crowd.

"What people should know is that we're really concerned with their safety first," Jones said.

The managing director made the announcement in a brief interview on 6ABC, which was telecasting the show. At the time, she danced around the question of whether the fireworks display had actually been canceled.

Asked whether she'd been evasive out of concern that revelers wouldn't leave if they thought fireworks were coming, Jones replied: "That definitely was a possibility."

As it turned out, the lightning strikes never materialized. Instead, within minutes the clouds parted and the rain almost completely stopped. So Jones decided to go ahead and start the pyrotechnic display.

"Think about it this way," said Caroline Fay Welch, vice president of programming at 6ABC, which broadcast the show.

"The weather situation has now changed, it's clear, and you have these fireworks. Do you pack them up and take them home? Or say, 'You know what, it's the Fourth of July, and it's Philadelphia'?"

Welch strongly denied that 6ABC had pressured the city to go ahead with the fireworks, despite the lack of a live audience.

"There was no pressure from Channel 6 whatsoever," she said, noting that the broadcast of the Fourth of July event had ended and the station had switched to its news show when city officials decided to go ahead with the fireworks. The station returned to live coverage of the display when it began.

"The reality is we have two audiences," said Jones. "There's the audience that camps out on the Parkway, and the audiences that are watching it on their televisions."

About 275,000 households watched the 6ABC telecast Wednesday night, Welch said.

6ABC has exclusive television rights to the event through an agreement with Sunoco Welcome America, a nonprofit organization created by the city that produces the event. Both 6ABC and Sunoco Welcome America declined to provide a copy of the agreement, but Welch said it contains no penalties for the nonprofit or the city if the fireworks show is canceled.

This year's fireworks cost Sunoco Welcome America about $150,000 - that tab also included a separate show held last weekend - but the organization would not have received a refund from the fireworks vendor had the pyrotechnics gone unused, said a spokeswoman for the nonprofit.

"It was not a financial issue; that was not a factor at all," Jones said.

When asked why the city didn't postpone the fireworks show - as some municipalities did - Jones said rescheduling the large and logistically challenging event wasn't an option.

"What can I say?" asked a chuckling Clifton Davis, executive director of Sunoco Welcome America. "It was a stormy night."


Contact staff writer Patrick Kerkstra at 215-854-2827 or pkerkstra@phillynews.com.

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