Almost with a playful wink, Mother Nature quietly sent out the fireflies minutes beforehand. But Vickie Cook knew what was coming.

And she knew what she has liked from year to year.

“It’s like the sky always is lit up,” Cook said. “The explosions stay pretty steady.”

The sky was indeed steadily lit up for QMIX Musical Fireworks 28: Playin’ With Fire, synchronized to tunes from artists ranging from Katy Perry to John Mellencamp, unfolding Monday near the Columbus Municipal Airport. The free event, coordinated by QMIX Radio 107.3 FM, remains one of the area’s largest festive occasions, with organizers estimating that as many as 50,000 people from miles around view the thunderous display visible as far away as Taylorsville.

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Brian Ross and his family have been gathering in a parking lot for nine years near Central Avenue and Rocky Ford Road for the fireworks frenzy.

“It’s nice that people can turn on their radios and jam out a little bit,” he said, just before he reached into his car to crank up the volume on QMIX.

In a salute that usually orchestrates rock with rockets, coordinators lit a bit of a different fuse before its latest 20-minute extravaganza. It launched proceedings with a local, flag-waving favorite: the Columbus Indiana Philharmonic’s recording of the national anthem for a star-spangled send-off.

O say many could see by the dusk’s barely light that the eventual hues of red, white and blue would make for a sky-high celebration for July 4th. Shooter David Maschino of J&M Displays figured an hour or so beforehand that he would fire about 1,000 pounds of shells and more before the music would cease.

It seemed fitting that part of the musical montage included a tune from Lady Gaga at an event that sometimes leaves the crowd a bit gaga over the Independence Day-related proceedings.

As usual, perhaps the biggest cluster of people assembled on the grounds of IUPUC, where a lineup of food and game vendors attracted visitors from parents with infants to people well into their 80s.

A Mill Race Center drumming group greeted many IUPUC parking lot arrivals with a rhythmic pounding — and an invitation to join them every Monday afternoon at the center.

“It’s good for your brain,” said Dan Mustard, the center’s executive director.

One activity on the IUPUC grounds, called KnockerBall, featured youngsters inside clear plastic balls rolling across the lawn like oversized gerbils and crashing into one another.

Others focused their interest elsewhere.

Tom Barnnardo mentioned that he enjoys this annual, patriotic presentation probably more than any other in the area. He mentioned the land of the free, but not just in the democratic, Americana sense.

“For one thing, this is absolutely free (of charge), and really well-coordinated and done very nicely,” Bennardo said, delivering hot dogs to his wife nearby.

Early in the proceedings, local illusionist Travis Easterling’s magic show, presented with the help of several enthusiastic youngsters, attracted its share of attention. He turned one person’s $100 bill into a dollar in seconds by merely folding it repeatedly — and eventually changed it back before returning the bill to the son of the owner.

“Whatever you do,” a dry-witted Easterling said, “don’t fold it.”

The event began with the temperature a sunny, steamy 84 degrees. The heat left Lori’s Lemon Shake-Ups workers hustling to serve thirsty customers, with early business seemingly up over last year, according to organizers.

“It (the rush) got started a little earlier this year,” said beverage worker Denza Simpson.

A few booths away, Lisa Bryant brought her grandchildren and foster children, from toddlers to preteens, to the bounce houses and other activities.

“But the kids really love seeing the fireworks,” Bryant said.

By the numbers

28

Years for the event

20

Approximate number of songs featured with the fireworks

20

Length in minutes for the fireworks

50,000

Throng of estimated viewers spread across miles of the Columbus area

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Brian Blair is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at bblair@therepublic.com or 812-379-5672.