STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Making history does not come easy.
After six years of planning and countless hours of meticulous work, Tim Borden’s attempt to launch the world’s largest aerial fireworks shell during the Winter Carnival’s Night Extravaganza on Saturday ended in disappointment.
An adjudicator from Guinness World Records watched with Borden from the top of Howelsen Hill Ski Area as the shell exploded immediately after it launched, sending bright sparks flying into the night sky.
“Part of the Guinness Book of World Records is that the shell has to leave the mortar and explode in the air,” said Michael Empric, an adjudicator from New York. “Unfortunately that didn’t happen.”
The firework, with a diameter of 62 inches, was supposed to shoot about a mile into the sky before combusting. Empric explained that the shell malfunctioned as it attempted to launch from the mortar and exploded before it took flight.
Borden knew going into the launch that success was not guaranteed.
He admitted in a previous interview that he was 95 percent confident everything would go as planned.
“There’s no data to tell us how much explosives to put underneath 2,500 pounds to get it sufficiently up in the air to explode and have everybody see it,” he said during that interview.
That small room for error proved large enough to matter.
If the launch had succeeded, Empric would have presented Borden with a certificate acknowledging his world record during a ceremony at the base of Howelsen. Borden quickly called Scott Larson, Howelsen’s crew leader, and told him to cancel the ceremony.
“If anybody asks, it’s just the way those things go,” he said. “We did the best we could, and it didn’t work this time.”
Empric agreed that canceling the event seemed best for everyone.
“I could announce the result to the public, but I think everyone just wants to go home,” he said.
The day’s troubles began prior the launch attempt. Perhaps a bad omen, Borden tore both of his quads just hours before the launch. He was walking from hard-packed snow to softer powder when he felt a sharp pain in his legs.
“I heard the popping sound of both of my tendons ripping off,” he said.
He went to the hospital, where he received braces to stabilize his legs. Even with the braces, Borden could barely walk, much less get up a mountain on his own.
Fortunately, firefighters from the North Routt Fire Protection District, including Chief Mike Swinsick, came to the rescue. They brought a snow-tracked UTV to transport Borden up the mountain. It had a flatbed on the back where he could sit comfortably and operate the launch controls.
Empric does not like to deny people a world record, especially when the one trying to set it has just suffered a serious injury. Witnessing failed attempts, he said, is one of the hardest parts of the job.
“Everyone is really excited — they’ve worked for months or years leading up to this point — but you have to do the job objectively,” Empric said.
In the many years that Borden has launched and designed fireworks, he has faced his fair share of obstacles. He once bought the entire town of Lay, Colorado, so he could get a federal license to manufacture fireworks.
Saturday night’s launch attempt presented its own set of challenges. Borden recruited three men for the project, including Jim Widmann, who helped to design the firework that holds the current world record for the largest aerial shell. That firework launched in the United Arab Emirates last year.
The four men spent years testing progressively larger fireworks, including a 48-inch shell that was the largest ever launched in North America. Building the 62-inch shell required a month of eight-hour workdays just to wrap it, plus a 60-page book of engineering designs.
“If setting a world record was easy, a lot more people would do it,” Borden said.
After all that hard work, he was disappointed that things did not go as planned Saturday. But not one to dwell on failures, he quickly found a silver lining.
“From here, I go directly home instead of worrying about the ceremony,” he said from his perch on the UTV.
As the crowds dissipated and a cold wind whipped over the top of Howelsen, Borden adjusted his baseball cap and turned a gimlet-eyed stare to the launch site.
“We’re not going to give up,” he said. “We’ll be back here again next winter.”
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