Fireworks Cause Panic in D.C.

A poorly publicized fireworks display caused panick in the nation’s capital last night, with many fearing a terrorist attack.

Fireworks Cause Deluge Of Panicked Calls in D.C. (WaPo)

Hundreds of Washington residents took cover in buildings, raced to outdoor balconies and made panicked calls to local police and fire departments Saturday night, unaware that the loud explosions they heard were from a fireworks display near the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The noise, which sounded like machine-gun fire to some and like bombs or cannonballs to others, could be heard as far away as upper Northwest Washington and Falls Church. D.C. fire department dispatchers were deluged with calls from worried residents for more than an hour, spokesman Alan Etter said. “They couldn’t count the number of calls,” Etter said. “They were swamped.”

District emergency officials, aware of the scheduled fireworks display, nonetheless sent out firetrucks as a precaution in response to the numerous reports of noise, smoke and haze, Etter said.

The seven-minute show, which launched the Kennedy Center’s month-long Festival of China, was the creation of pyrotechnics designer Cai Guo-Qiang, who had referred to it as an “explosion event.” But in a region all too familiar with color-coded terror alerts — and not used to hearing fireworks on days other than the Fourth of July — the loud, unexplained noises in the nighttime sky sowed fears of something far more ominous.


The display began around 9:50p.m., said Kennedy Center spokeswoman Tiki Davies. The shells were launched from nine small boats and one barge in the Potomac River, to heights of 80 to 150 feet. For the finale, spectators saw what festival organizers called a “tornado” — a thick, funnel-shaped, white plume of smoke suspended 500 feet in the air.

Not only should this have been better publicized but 9:50 on a work night strikes me as rather late to have a fireworks display for some minor event, anyway.

Correction: A reader notes that this happened Saturday night, not last night. I naturally assumed the former given that this was on the front page of the Post today.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. DC Loser says:

    This happened on a Saturday night, not a work night unless you worked that night.

  2. Boyd says:

    Considering that the front page of the Sunday WaPo was already printed many hours before the event (I saw the Sunday Post on the newsstand at 4 p.m. on Saturday, even all the way out here in Sterling), this morning’s edition was really their first opportunity to report it.

  3. James Joyner says:

    Boyd: True ’nuff in terms of the print edition, although not so with the online edition. And, by now, this isn’t A1 news. Although, until the Miers nomination, it was an uncredibly slow news day.

  4. Ben says:

    I was at the Kennedy center for these fireworks, it was amazingly loud concussion type explosions, but nothing resembling a tornado. The fireworks show started at 9:50, the loud portion was the last bit. After some showery sprays of firework fountains, everything stopped for a good 5-10 minutes. People began to leave, grumbling about waiting for three hours. Then the first round of concussion explosions probably happened around 10:15, prompting people to rush back. Then another delay of about 5 minutes, seemingly coinciding with a break in air-traffic, and the second set went off, which was even louder to our ears.

    We started hearing fire trucks and police sirens immediately after the first set, which could explain the delay as well.

    I got the feeling that most people in the crowd felt the fireworks were a “dud” overall… despite the amazing loudness of the last part.