By BILL ARCHER
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
A Mercer County family of five plan to have a blast this Fourth of July — perhaps that should be five blasts. Mike and Susan Plumley, along with several family members, will be igniting fireworks displays in five regional communities on Wednesday.
The Plumleys — Mike, Susan, their daughter and son-in-law, Kate, 24, and Josh Sizemore, another daughter and son-in-law, Elizabeth, 21, and Tracy Coppola and daughter Victoria, 16 who is still in training — along with another five or six licensed fireworks shooters will be gathering Ohooos and Ahaaas from people attending fireworks shows at Bramwell, Bowen Field in Bluefield, Va., Pax, Coeburn, Va., and Lebanon, Va.
The Plumleys are licensed fireworks shooters in West Virginia and Virginia and have been working as contractors for American Fireworks since 2000. American Fireworks is based in Hudson, Ohio, and has been in the business since 1902.
“Each fireworks has a name,” Mike Plumley said as he took a few brown packages out of a box containing a couple dozen large fireworks and a “cake” cluster of smaller packages. “This one is named ‘3 Circle Chrysanthemum’ and this one is called ‘Dragon eggs.’ I can’t tell the difference when we shoot them, because I’m always concerning myself with safety issues and preparing for the next shot.”
The family got involved with fireworks displays in an unusual way. In the 1990s, Susan, who holds an undergraduate degree from Bluefield State College and a masters in business administration from West Virginia University, was serving as field director for the Girl Scouts, when she found out that Bill Craft, who was then the executive director of the United Way of the Two Virginias, was a fireworks shooter.
“I thought it might be nice for some of the girls to see what he did to prepare for a show,” Susan Plumley said. “I met Bill through the United Way. He asked if Mike and I would like to stay that evening and see how it was done.”
“I mean, what man wouldn’t want to shoot off fireworks,” Mike Plumley said. “I had been setting off fireworks as long as I could remember.”
“By the end of the season, you can get pretty tired of it,” Susan Plumley said. “After you’ve done 10 to 14 shows in one season, you’re pretty tired. But then, when February rolls around, you’re all excited about it again.”
“You miss the smell of the smoke,” Mike Plumley said. “You miss the smell of black powder.”
Susan Plumley, 52, graduated from Oceana High School in 1978, two years after Mike, 54, graduated in 1976. In addition to his undergraduate degree from Bluefield State College, Mike holds a masters degree in mining engineering from Marshall University as well as a MBA, also from MU.
“I’ve thought about going on to get a Ph.D., but that’s something else all together,” he said. “I believe its good to learn everything you can.”
After he received his undergraduate degree, Mike Plumley went to work at the Pinnacle Mine and remained there through a couple ownership changes. While there, he was a member of the mine’s mine rescue team that earned a national championship in 2005. He worked on the BSC faculty for a time, worked as a state mine inspector and now serves as a safety & loss control consultant. He also serves as the director of the annual mine rescue competition jointly sponsored by Welch Post No. 1, “Smoke-eaters” National Mine Rescue Association, and BSC.
Both Michael and Susan are fastidious about safety. “People ask us if we liked this or that firework, but when you shoot the fireworks, you never get to look at the show,” Mike Plumley said. “We shoot chain fireworks where you light one and they go bang, bang, bang bang, bang, and we have 60 3-inch shells. We have manual and electronically fired fireworks. We try to make the show as safe as possible.”
When they learned the skill with Bill Craft, he would shoot one, clean the shell and shoot another. The Plumleys set the entire show in advance. “The hardest work comes before and immediately after the show,” Susan Plumley said. “The product we get now is very safe. We have had a couple of low blows, but not many. Now, there’s just a massive amount of equipment to do a show the way we do it. Our focus is always on safety.”
The Plumleys enjoy setting off because of the joy they bring. “The reaction to the shows makes it special,” Susan Plumley said. “The attraction reaches all ages. We always have people come out.”
“I’ve always enjoyed fireworks, but when you get up to professional displays, at that point, they’re explosives. We stay focused on safety issues and in some places, crowd control. What we don’t get to do is enjoy the show,” Mike Plumley said.
“Your focus changes when you’re putting off the show,” Susan Plumley said. “We go to shooters’ schools and we learn different techniques. Our preparations for these 5 shows on the 4th will start on the 3rd. Total planning starts in February.”
Although all of 10 employees who work with the Plumleys are licensed fireworks shooters, this year marks the first time that one of the Plumley family members will not be at one of the shoots. When the Plumleys watched Bill Craft shoot his display, Craft shot everything manually.
“Our crew has developed over the years,” Susan said.
“We’ve got some excellent people,” Mike said. “It can take from 45 minutes to 3 hours to set up a show. We have been licensed in West Virginia for several years, but Virginia just required licensing this year. All of us have our Virginia licenses now too.”
“For the shows we do in West Virginia, the buyer has to do the permit work,” Mike Plumley said.
While Mike Plumley’s natural inclination led him into fireworks, Susan, on the other hand, grew up differently. “She had Barbie dolls,” Mike said of his wife. “She was a daddy’s girl ... a princess,” Mike said.
“I was a girlie, girl, but I enjoy doing this,” Susan said. “Victoria has grown up on this.”
“She was afraid of fireworks at first,” Mike Plumley said. “We got her some little fireworks to set off herself. She set up a display and we sat there and Oooed and Aaahed when she put on her display.”
“A normal kid would think its the greatest thing in the world to be with us when we shoot off a fireworks display, but it’s just ordinary to them now,” Susan Plumley said.
— Contact Bill Archer at firstname.lastname@example.org