Like clockwork, the boom sounded at 9:50 p.m., meaning it was time for Peggy Handley to walk outside. It was April 14, a Friday, and for the past week Universal Orlando Resort had been setting off fireworks on its property across from Handley's Vineland Road house. Handley had made it a habit to stand outside when the displays started to see which direction the wind was blowing. Usually it blew from the west, away from her neighborhood, but tonight the wind was from the north. The 59-year-old watched as debris fell from the sky, through the pine trees and into her neighbors' yards. One piece in particular caught her eye: a thin strip of cardboard still glowing orange, which floated down to the street, landing a couple of feet from a rain-starved lawn that was covered in dry leaves.
"I watched the paper burn for about 10 seconds and thought, ‘My God, what if that had fallen on those leaves?'" Handley says.
As she had done in the past, Handley called the fire department to investigate. And, as in the past, she says the fire department didn't think anything of burning paper floating down from the sky; in fact, fire officials consider Handley more of a nuisance than the fireworks.
The first time Handley recalls the firework debris being a problem was July 4, 2005. The next day, she went outside and found the street strewn with bits of thick brown paper. She keeps a sample of the pieces in a shoebox. Some are charred; one had "MIB" handwritten on it, possibly referring to the "Men in Black: Alien Attack" ride on the northern edge of the park, less than 1,000 feet from Handley's house. Some of the pieces have a label on them that reads "4.0 shell" or "5.0 shell," referring to the diameter of the particular firework.
Two days later, on July 6, 2005, she called Orlando Fire Marshal Tammy Hughes to see what could be done. Hughes said she would send out investigator Warren Dix, but Dix never showed because, as Handley relates it, he didn't want to be at the house when the media was there. (A TV news crew was out doing a story on the debris incident.) Hughes told Handley to bring the debris in to her office, but Handley never did.
Then on July 27 Handley received a letter from Hughes. It read: "It is my opinion that Universal Studios of Florida continues to promote and provide a safe display and use of pyrotechnics."
Which wasn't good enough for Handley. She called and asked about getting a copy of the fire codes. Sometime in early August Dix, the inspector who was originally scheduled to come out, dropped by the house. According to Handley, Dix said he'd heard that Handley had picked up the debris off the Universal parking lot across the street, not from her neighborhood.
"I couldn't believe he said that," Handley says. "If they had come out when they said they were going to, they would have seen the street covered in the stuff."
Sometime around then, Hughes herself came out to Handley's house. The two went up on the roof; Handley wanted to show the fire marshal debris that had fallen in her gutters. Hughes left a letter with Handley that read: "At this time, no further action is required; therefore, I am asking you to refrain from calling the Orlando Fire Department regarding this matter again."
When asked about Handley, Hughes sighs audibly. "I was doing everything I could to appease both Universal and Ms. Handley, but I can't shut down Universal's display because of a few pieces of paper."
The matter died down until April 14 of this year, when Handley saw the burning piece of debris fall to the street.
Unlike when Walt Disney started buying orange groves in the 1960s, leaving a huge buffer between the soon-to-be built park and the outside world, Universal moved into an already established residential area in 1990. A March 18, 1990, story in the Orlando Sentinel, two months before Universal's opening, read, "Universal is hemmed in by … a growing array of residential communities." Orange County Commissioner Vera Carter was quoted as saying, "This is a terrible place to put a tourist attraction." Sixteen years later, some local residents would agree.
Universal doesn't shoot off fireworks every night. Special occasions, like Christmas or the upcoming July 4 holiday, are when the big guns appear. But according to Vineland Road homeowners, those occasions are becoming more frequent. With Disney's expansive fireworks show just across town, one-upmanship seems to be in play. Handley says each year the Universal shows have gotten bigger, louder and more frequent than the year before.
The list of fireworks Universal used for the 2005 Fourth of July show is more than 50 pages long, with names like "6.0 Saturn in Circle" and "8.0 Purple Mum." Again, the "6.0" and "8.0" refer to the diameter of each firework shell. According to the National Fire Protection Association's firework codes — the code Orange County abides by — the display site, which includes the fallout area for debris, should have a radius of 70 feet per every inch of shell size. If you're shooting off a 5-inch shell, the debris can fall 350 feet from the blast area.
There were more than 100 8-inch fireworks listed for the July 4 show, debris from which, using the NFPA code's calculation, can fall 560 feet from where they were exploded. That distance should be more than enough of a safe space for Vineland Road residents. But if the wind kicks up, which it does often, debris can fall far beyond the allowed area.
When Handley brought this point up in a meeting with fire chief Bob Bowman, she says he told her that they can't control the wind. What about controlling whether or not Universal shoots fireworks when the wind is blowing her way? (Bowman could not be reached for comment.)
The recent Mardi Gras season meant two weeks of nightly fireworks. Jean Frazier, 78, who lives a few houses down from Handley, says following some of the fireworks shows her yard looked like a Christmas tree, full of shiny blue, red and silver papers that float over from Universal.
"I usually get to pick up papers the morning after," she says.
Mohabeer Singh, who also lives down the street from Handley, had it worse than Frazier. He says a firework exploded near his house in 2001 and the embers burned through the paint on his car. Handley says she's had to repaint her truck for the same reason.
Falling debris isn't the only issue for Universal's neighbors, either. When the park moved in across the street in the early '90s, Bill Prentis, another Vineland resident, remembers calling Universal to ask about noise.
"They told me there would be no problem with it," he says. That hasn't been the case. During the recent Mardi Gras celebration, Prentis says he'd have to turn the TV volume way up around 10 p.m. to hear above the booms.
The noise got so bad for Frazier that she called Universal.
"It rattles my house," she says.
In between fireworks events, residents say Universal also tests the next show, sometimes at late hours. Before the Mardi Gras show ever started, Frazier says she was awakened a couple of times past midnight to the sounds of fireworks exploding. She called to complain and says the fireworks were stopped immediately.
Universal has no legal boundaries on how loud they can be; since opening in 1990, they've had an exemption to the city's noise ordinance. Tom Schroder, spokesman for Universal, says the park still works hard to voluntarily comply with the ordinance and tries "to be as responsive as possible to our neighbors when they express concerns while also preserving the quality of the experience we offer our guests."
Still, on April 25, only weeks after Frazier had complained, Handley sat in her driveway and watched an apparent fireworks display test at around midnight.
On the night of April 14, the night of the "burning debris," as Handley calls it, she called the Orlando Fire Department to report flaming paper in the sky, and the dispatcher sent someone out. Handley says the man looked around for a few minutes with a flashlight, and after seeing a few pieces, he quit the search. His report said that no action was required.
"I thought the idea of a burning piece of paper would get them interested, but apparently not," says Handley.
April 14 was only one week removed from the end of Orlando's record-breaking 41-day drought, and reports of brush fires throughout the Central Florida area have been prevalent for months. On April 24 there were still pieces of charred cardboard down the street from her house, many of them with the shell size visible on the label.
"If I hear the boom now, I go out to check the wind because I don't want some burning thing to fly over onto my house," Handley says.
She's gotten so fed up with what she sees as a lack of response from the city fire officials and Universal that she's contacted just about everybody else, too: Orange County fire department, state fire marshal's office, county commissioner Teresa Jacobs, Mayor Buddy Dyer, state Sen. Dan Webster, state Sen. Al Lawson, Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings and Gov. Jeb Bush.
Tammy Hughes says she's checked numerous times how Universal is shooting off their fireworks, only to discover that they're operating perfectly within their permit.
"I've never seen a house catch on fire from a small piece of firework like that," Hughes says.
Schroder, the Universal spokesman, says the theme park takes wind conditions into account when deciding whether or not to shoot fireworks each night and has cleanup crews that sweep the sidewalks just outside the park. Which, of course, is no comfort to Handley:
"I don't want the first time `a house catches fire` to be in my neighborhood."
In recent weeks, Handley has finally seen some attention from the Orange County Fire Marshal, Dan Kucik, who is trying to set up a meeting with city fire officials and Universal to talk about curbing noise and debris. But Handley's not holding her breath.
"Right now, `Universal's` being such a bad neighbor, and they haven't changed in the past. We'll see."firstname.lastname@example.org