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Katy Perry, Lady Gaga and the secret DC fireworks show on inauguration night

Fourth generation pyrotechnic expert brothers talk exclusively to WUSA9 about the performance and the lengths they went through to keep the show a secret

WASHINGTON — Under heavy guard and strict COVID-19 protocols, August and Chris Santore casually marched into Washington, D.C. days before the Presidential Inauguration with a platoon of pyrotechnic experts and tons of explosives. 

Their mission took place under unprecedented scrutiny and security. The only way to pull it off safely was to work in absolute secrecy. 

"Keeping our crew really tight lipped," said Chris Santore of Garden State Fireworks. "I think they were excited about that, to be able to unleash this thing out of nowhere." 

Their mission had to be a carefully choreographed dance, working with the Secret Service, National Park Service, the National Guard, D.C. Metropolitan Police and others. August Santore of Garden State Fireworks said it took two and a half hours to reach the Washington Monument from his hotel in downtown D.C. on L street Inauguration Day.  

Credit: AP
Fireworks are displayed over the White House as part of Inauguration Day ceremonies for President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

"Because of Covid-19 and the events at the Capitol we were working in a very tight environment," said Santore. "We certainly didn't let anyone what we were doing. It was our contractual obligation."

The Presidential Inaugural Committee contracted with Garden State Fireworks out of New Jersey to unleash a massive fireworks show that spanned 14 sites over a half mile through a heavily fortified and protected area from the Washington monument to West Potomac Park.  

Garden State Fireworks had won previous contracts to perform on the National Mall for 4th of July celebrations. This was clearly different. 

They would have to carefully sync their performance to superstar musician Katy Perry signing her hit song "Firework" live while the newly elected President looked on from the balcony of the White House. The show was broadcast on all the network and cable television stations in front of a captive global audience.

That was no problem for the 4th generation pyrotechnic experts from New Jersey who trace their roots back to the late 1800's when their family immigrated to the United States from Italy. 

Credit: Garden State Fireworks
Archive photo of Garden State Fireworks team

"My family's been at this for over 130 years. We started in 1890," said August Santore.

While most fireworks shows are publicized well in advance, there was only a very small circle of people who knew this particular show was going to happen to close out the Inauguration Night festivities. 

Santore said there were several reasons for that, including Covid-19 safety. The Presidential Inaugural Committee did not want large groups of people to gather in various parts of D.C. and Virginia to watch the show in person. 

They also did not want to deal with the possibility that someone or some group would try to interrupt the show. Chiefly, in light of the siege on the Capitol building, they didn't want anyone knowing about the presence of tons of explosives within sight of the White House and our nation's cherished landmarks. 

The show took the majority of our area by complete surprise, some believing that our nation's capital city was under attack. 

Maintaining secrecy brought a few unexpected challenges along with it. It was cold in D.C. in the days leading up to the inauguration. The Santore brothers and their team had jackets emblazoned with the company logo "Garden State Fireworks."

"I have to take my jacket off so we can travel back and forth to the site so no one gets suspicious about this large team in town," said Chris Santore.

August and Chris worked hand in hand until the early morning hours of inauguration day to complete the show. Chris didn't finish his part until 4:55am on the 20th. He slept a few hours while August took over and planned his portion. 

At the time Lady Gaga sang the Star Spangled Banner from the inaugural platform, it was just ten hours until show time. The fireworks performance was set for 9:55pm. 

Credit: Garden State Fireworks
The Garden State Fireworks team responsible for the "Celebrating America" fireworks show on January 20, 2021

"In front of the whole world watching with the President of the United States looking on and being a focal point of the entertainment to close out what's obviously been a challenging time in our nation's history," said August Santore,

"It's obviously been a difficult time and the country's been seeking a lot of unity and to be a part of that and be a part of the celebration of that was incredible." 

"So many people are watching. It's incredible you can't even put it into words," said Chris Santore. "Wow this thing is crazy it took hold of the nation. The world. and its humbling, you know."

Garden State Fireworks partnered with Strictly FX at the direction of Ricky Kirshner of KEI Productions to execute the performance.

"We couldn't be more pleased with the faith that Strictly FX has in us to be able to do what we love," said August Santore. "Watching Katy Perry's arm outstretched as our fireworks lit up the night for our President and First Lady is something we will never forget."     

"On behalf of everyone in D.C. and people watching this show across the country. Thank you. And congratulations. It was amazing," said WUSA9 anchor Adam Longo during his interview of the Santore brothers. 

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