Fireworks can often be a great way to celebrate a party, event or passing of time. They can also be a very dangerous gamble when not properly cared for, in the wrong hands or not thoroughly planned and executed. One major cautionary tale of a firework disaster takes place in my home city, Paris.
May 1770. Marie Antoinette had just become the dauphine of France when she married Louis-Auguste (future King Louis XVI). The reigning King, King Louis XV was well known to enjoy celebrating with elaborate firework displays. He even appointed two Italian brothers as his Artificiers du Roi, his official pyrothechnicians. The brothers Ruggieri were born in Italy but had relocated to France. They had made a name for themselves with their impressive and artistic firework capabilities. These brothers brought sophistication to fireworks, no longer a military style of shooting, but a theatrical production of a show. These productions included colors (before them, most fireworks were white or yellow), unique shapes, moving effects and a single fuse to light multiple rockets at once.
The disastrous event occurred on 30 May 1770, part of the many celebrations held for Marie Antoinette’s marriage to Louis-Aguste. The Place Louis XV (modern day Place de la Concorde) was filled with around six hundred thousand Parisians who all went out to see the show and celebrate the marriage of the future royals. Carriages were parked along the make-shift trails for those inside to sit and wait for the show to begin. Others, not fortunate enough to have a carriage, made picnics on the grass, or climbed trees or statues for an elevated view. A scaffolding had been erected, about 10 to 12 feet high with all of the fireworks awaiting to be lit. The people of Paris were excited to see the display, as the previous display that happened before at Versailles for the royal couple was ruined by rainfall and Parisians always enjoy making known that they are the unparalleled best. Thousands of people were packed into this space with little room to breathe, but it was worth it to be apart of such a magical evening.
The night had started with fantasies of what beauty was in store for each spectator. Unfortunately, a large gust of wind knocked over a tower of rockets and it then shot into the crowd. Panic flooded the hundreds of thousands of spectators. Carriages couldn’t move because there were so many people on foot, everyone looking for a safe exit went scrambling towards the Rue Royale, a very narrow street where people were being trampled over by the mass exodus of confused and frightened lot. Those who went the opposite direction towards the Seine had just as complicated mission before them as well, with others fighting to stay afloat and swim towards safety. The official government total of deceased is 133. However, many spectators, and historians disagree with this number with others claiming it was as high as 3,000. Of those 133 killed, the causes of death ranged between being trampled by foot, by wheel, by horse, or drowning. The poorly placed fireworks were not the deaths of the people, it was the mass hysteria that led to those 133+ deaths.
The brothers Ruggieri, were devastated. The city of Paris had cut the Firework budget completely, as this was their main source of income the brothers had to work hard to reestablish themselves. Don’t worry though, the brothers went on creating many more extravagant firework displays and their family is still well respected in the Firework community.
If you would like to read more about this event, I suggest picking up Alexandre Dumas’ novel “Joseph Balsamo” to read his exciting fictionalized version of the events.
Now that you have had your history lesson for the day, take knowledge of how planning proper exits and fire safety codes should always be observed. If any situation should arise, always try to keep calm, cool and collected as it could save your life as well as those around you.