PORTLAND — Thousands of families gathered on the Eastern Prom on Sunday night for a patriotic extravaganza of music and fireworks that almost didn’t happen.

The show went on despite the Portland City Council’s decision in April to eliminate $45,000 for the display from the city budget. A few days after that decision, several business executives stepped forward and pledged money for the show and they also added a pops concert by the Portland Symphony Orchestra.

After the show concluded, workers for Atlas Pyrotechnics discovered a fire on the trailer that contains about 300 plastic tubes used to fire the shells. The fire did not disrupt the show and no one was injured.

Firefighters initially opted to let the trailer burn rather than approach it to try to douse the fire because they could not determine if any fireworks remained in the tubes, said Nicole Clegg, Portland’s spokeswoman.

About an hour after the show concluded, fire officials had determined that there was no longer any danger and they began to extinguish the flames, said Frederick LaMontagne Jr., the city’s fire chief. He said officials from the state Fire Marshal’s Office would be called in to see if they can determine the cause.

Because of the fire, about 15 shells did not go off as scheduled during the show, LaMontagne said, but went off after the finale. He said the shells were delayed but otherwise fired normally, reaching the proper height before exploding.

Most people on the Eastern Prom were probably unaware of the fire because the area where the shells are set off is largely out of sight. But the fire and thick black smoke were visible to people watching from dozens of boats that anchored just off the East End.

In 1997, a faulty lift charge — the device that sends the fireworks shell hundreds of feet in the air — went off just three feet off the ground, setting off boxes of other fireworks nearby. That year’s show ended after just a few minutes and three workers were injured.

Some people in the large crowd said they were unaware that this year’s display was on the verge of cancellation. Most were happy with the addition of the pops concert, which kept people entertained while they waited for it to get dark enough for the fireworks.

The first fireworks were timed to go off during the crescendo of “The 1812 (William Tell) Overture” and the display continued, set to “America the Beautiful,” “God Bless America” and “The Stars and Stripes Forever.”

For Valdete and Shkelzen Raka, Independence Day and celebrations like the one Sunday have a special meaning.

The couple came to the U.S. in 1999, escaping the civil war in Kosovo. That former Serbian Republic gained independence in 2008, and Valdete Raka said that gives America’s celebration of its independence a richer dimension to the new citizens.

“It’s really good to celebrate it,” she said as the couple’s 2 1/2-year-old daughter Anita played happily on the grassy hillside. Kosovo citizens “really understand independence” because of the cost involved in gaining it, she said.

The couple missed last year’s American Independence Day because they traveled back to Kosovo to be with their family. Kosovo marks its independence on July 14, she said, and celebrates it much as Americans do, with fireworks, parties and dancing.

Others in the crowds said this year’s event seemed less rowdy than past celebrations, probably due to the entertainment provided by the concert and patriotic readings that went on between 7:30 p.m., when most people had arrived at the Eastern Prom, and shortly after 9:30 p.m., when the fireworks got under way.

Chris Lashua of Westbrook, sitting with her mother Ella Couch, said she usually attends the fireworks, but in the past stayed away from the hillside area where most people watched.

“It was too crazy, but with the Portland Symphony, we wanted to come,” she said. “It certainly adds a joie de vivre.”

Lashua said she was concerned a few months ago when she heard that the display might be canceled after the city cut funding.

“That was kind of sad that such a long tradition was almost being canceled,” she said.

After the city decided to cut the funding, a group of business executives — Jon Jennings, president and general manager of the Maine Red Claws basketball team; Jack Quirk, owner of Quirk Chevrolet; Michael Dubyak, chief executive officer of Wright Express; and Richard Connor, chief executive officer of MaineToday Media (owner of The Portland Press Herald /Maine Sunday Telegram) — pledged the money to keep the show going.

Other businesses and individuals also donated money, providing enough for the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s pops concert on the Eastern Prom.

A new nonprofit organization, the July Fourth Portland Foundation, is being established to provide funding for future fireworks displays and other holiday events.

Quirk said he felt the decision to make sure the fireworks show went on was confirmed for him when he attended the funeral last week of Sgt. Brandon Silk, a Maine native who was killed in Afghanistan. Sunday’s show included a musical selection in which veterans were asked to stand and were cheered by the crowd.

“We need something like this for the Fourth of July,” Quirk said. “This had to go on.”

Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:

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