The Big Bay Boom show that was supposed to wow crowds for 20 minutes lasted only about 20 seconds after a computer mishap caused multiple bulb-shaped explosions on the bay, lighting the night sky over downtown San Diego and filling the air with deafening booms.
The show's producer blamed a "technical glitch" Thursday, saying an error in its computer system caused tens of thousands of fireworks on four barges to go off simultaneously with a single command.
"Thank goodness no one was injured. Precautions all worked 100 percent," said August Santore, part-owner of Garden State Fireworks.
Garden State Fireworks, based in Millington, N.J., apologized and vowed to determine precisely what went wrong. The 122-year-old company produced hundreds of other shows across the country Wednesday night.
Santore said the company felt terrible, but the mood was unforgiving among many of the hundreds of thousands of people who witnessed the explosions before they could get off their first "ooh" or "ah."
The crowd stood in quiet disbelief, with many wondering what just happened. Word went out on the radio about 20 minutes later that the show was over.
"It was like a giant, serious bomb went off," said Mike Newton, 29, a photographer who watched from a friend's 28th-floor apartment. "That's what it looked like and felt like. It hit you right in the chest."
Bre Nelson, a 26-year-old wedding planner, watched from a hillside street packed with "tons and tons of people and cars."
"It was really neat to see the entire sky light up but then we just waited there," said Nelson. "Everyone was just sitting around."
Crowds had waited hours. The San Diego Trolley was packed, hotel rooms facing the bay were sold out, and a patriotic score was set to be simulcast on a local radio station. The show was set to stream live on the Web.
Instead, the fireworks flop became a hit online by Thursday afternoon, received more than 600,000 views on YouTube.
Sponsors contributed about $380,000 to host the show, said Sandy Purdon, owner of a bay marina and the chief organizer. The Port of San Diego contributed $145,000 as title sponsor, with hotels and restaurants giving much of the rest.
The port district gave an additional $50,000 worth of services, including traffic control, portable toilets and cleanup.
The fireworks cost $125,000 and the barges and tugs cost $45,000, Purdon said. After permits, publicity, buses and other costs, there was about $50,000 left, which was earmarked to help young military families though the San Diego Armed Services YMCA.
The port district said in a statement that it was "very disappointed" in what it described as an apparent technical error.
It was unclear if anyone will get reimbursed. Purdon, who witnessed the explosions from his home with his sponsors, said he had discussed with Garden State Fireworks the possibility that it foots the bill for next year's Fourth of July show.
Garden State Fireworks has staged pyrotechnic displays for the 1988 Winter Olympics, the Statue of Liberty Bicentennial Celebration and New Year's Eve in Central Park in New York.
"We are a good strong company, and we rely on technology. We'll take the ridicule as long as no one was injured," Santore said.
The debacle will likely fuel a long-running controversy in San Diego about damage that fireworks displays inflict on marine life. Environmental attorney Marco Gonzalez has repeatedly challenged shows that take place over water, inviting ire and ridicule from critics including San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders.
Gonzalez recently prevailed in court decisions but decided against trying to block this year's show in La Jolla Cove. Still, organizers of a fireworks show over San Diego's Lake Murray canceled this year's show, saying they feared a lawsuit.
"The notion that fireworks are critical to Independence Day celebrations has just been blown out of proportion with these large shows," Gonzalez said.