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Crowds line river for ‘beautiful’ downtown fireworks

Francis X. Donnelly, Breana Noble, and Candice Williams

Detroit — Hundreds of thousands of spectators marveled Monday night as downtown Detroit echoed with explosions of sound and light during the city’s 58th annual fireworks show.

The oohs and aahs fluttered along the Detroit River as 10,000 mortars punched the nighttime sky.

“Just wow,” said Donna Davila of Macomb, a newbie to this yearly extravaganza. “I like how big they are.”

Those big rockets blanketed the sky with floral designs called dahlias, peonies, chrysanthemums.

The names might be dainty but the impact was anything but, onlookers said.

Unlike Davila, Maria Brown of Detroit has been here before. But she was impressed by Monday’s show.

“It was beautiful,” she said. “They stepped up this year. There was so much variety.”

For 24 minutes, the manmade thunder and lightning bounced off the downtown skyscrapers.

The Ford Fireworks may not be the greatest show in town, but it’s certainly one of the loudest.

“It’s always a great show,” said Larry Howard, of Roseville.

Many people had turned the show into an all-day event.

They began descending upon a five-mile stretch of the river in the morning, setting up their encampment and waited for liftoff.

Ford offered the first 1,000 vehicles free entry to Belle Isle but many visitors hardly needed the incentive.

Old-timers such as Dan Sheffield, of Southfield, know you have to come early to snag the best spots along the island’s western edge.

“I always do,” the 58-year-old said about coming early. “You have to.”

Sheffield and 3,000 of his closest friends sat shoulder to shoulder while others pitched tents or waited in campers.

Downtown at Hart Plaza, the accommodations were simpler: blankets and lawn chairs.

But it was no less fun.

Tricia Kaye, of Warren, brought her three children on what has become the family’s social event of the year.

“They love it,” she said about her kids, ages 7, 8 and 10. “They can’t get enough of it.”

We’d like to report how the children felt but they were too busy scampering to and fro.

Temperatures reached into the 90s but people didn’t seem to notice.

They busied themselves playing Frisbee, cooking on a grill, playing games on their smartphones.

If it got too hot, they slipped under beach umbrellas or dug through ice chests for another cold beverage.

“I’d rather have this than winter,” said Sheffield, clad in shorts and a T-shirt.

Other popular viewing spots were riverfront parks, and a few souls bobbed on boats in the river.

Luckier still were the swells planning to watch the show from a $250-a-ticket fundraiser from the roof of a downtown Miller parking garage.

Whatever spot people picked, they usually lugged the same stuff, including cameras and binoculars.

More than a few brought American flags.

Despite the looming election, Democrats and Republicans were joined together celebrating the country’s birthday.

“It’s the greatest country in the world,” said Kaye, who had a miniature flag.

Around her, families ate picnic style while others played board games.

At the Detroit/Wayne County Port Authority building, 250 current and former members of the military were honored at a reception held by Ford and the Yankee Air Museum.

Miguel Thornton, president of the Tuskegee Airmen’s Detroit chapter, compared the city to the mythological phoenix rising from the ashes.

“Detroit was never in ashes, but the strength of the bird represents the strength of Detroit,” he said.

Back at Hart Plaza, Tameka Richardson enjoyed the same shady spot her family has enjoyed for eight downtown fireworks in a row.

They arrived at 12:30 p.m., nine hours before the scheduled show.

“I want to give them that experience because I didn’t have that,” she said about her two sons.

Lory Parks, of Detroit, was among the early birds. She and her ex-husband arrived by 8:30 a.m. to set up his camper on an empty lot on Jefferson near Chene. They brought a grill, folding chairs and a karaoke machine ready for friends and family they expected later in the day.

“As the day goes on it’s going to get packed,” Parks said of the lot.

She said she took time off from work for the event she tries to attend every year.

A steady stream of vehicles had flowed onto Belle Isle by afternoon.

Michigan State Police troopers lined the entry and were highly visible on the island.

Families unpacked coolers from their cars as well as tents, grills and other gear they needed to enjoy the wait for the fireworks display.

Detroiters Alexis Styles and Darius Davis sat under the shade of two umbrellas with their three children, Curtis, 13, Karma, 6 and Shamya, 8 months. Nearby sat a cooler filled with food and a blanket for lounging.

Styles said the family tries to attend the fireworks each year.

“I heard they’re going to be better than last year,” she said. “I hope the weather stays nice, that it doesn’t rain and that it’s a good show.”

The children had their own thoughts about the event.

“I’m expecting something new,” Curtis said.

Keeping watch over the crowds were the Detroit police on foot, motorcycle, car and horseback.

Earlier in the day, Police Chief James Craig said he hoped the downtown fireworks show would be a safe event.

After an 11:45 a.m. roll call on the floor of Joe Louis Arena, hundreds of officers, working 12-hour shifts, began sweeps of their coverage areas, Officer Jennifer Moreno said.

About an hour before the fireworks began, a small group of police escorted a shirtless man away. They were checking IDs of young people.

In addition to some 125 “angels” who volunteered Monday night, Detroit police were assisted by Michigan State Police, Customs and Border Patrol agents, and even the U.S. Secret Service, Craig said.

fdonnelly@detroitnews.com

(313) 223-4186

Twitter: @francisXdonnell

Staff Writer James David Dickson contributed.