Sunday, August 26

Injuries, Fire at Dragon Boat Festival

Some suggest insurance may be a good idea for next year's festivities

Injuries continue to mount in the late hours Sunday as the S.S. Meteor continues to burn at the lovely Barker's Island in Superior. At the present time there are 25 persons reported to be in critical condition at Douglas County Memorial Urgent Care Center. The Meteor caught fire Saturday after being rammed by a dragon boat during the yearly festival.

The Dragon Boat Festival is held yearly at Barker's Island. This year, it began like it does every year: traditional parades and dress, coupled with feasting on a huge stack of egg rolls. Friday's events went off as planned, with the races set to start at 9:00 AM Saturday.

At the crack of dawn, Greg Chamberlain was putting the final touches on his dragon boat. The foremast, which included at large golden dragon head, was complete. The dragon's nostrils, constructed of stainless steel, would be the most exciting aspect of the boat. They were to be automatically set aflame halfway through the race; sparks would fly to a distance of 15' in front of the boat. During the race, however, things quickly went awry. First, Chamberlain's boat was damaged. A boat piloted by Heather Tsongas, three-time winner in the "expansive/roomy dragon" category, veered to port incorrectly, utterly destroying Chamberlain's rudder.

Lacking a rudder, Chamberlain tried to control the dragon. As he took drastic steps to bring the fast moving dragon to a halt, the auto-nostrils went off and flames burst forth. Chamberlain veered towards land, realizing too late that he was headed toward the Museum "S.S. Meteor." In a matter of seconds, Chamberlain's dragon had pierced the hull of the Meteor. Lacking any sort of shut-off mechanism, flames spewed forth into the aging bulkhead of the Meteor. What no one expected next was a massive explosion. Chamberlain was thrown from the dragon boat upon ramming the Meteor and was unharmed.

The Meteor was placed in permanent dry dock at Barker's Island in 1971 for use as a museum. Unbeknown to Museum employees, the Meteor remained partially filled with gasoline. The Meteor was commissioned in 1898 and served primarily as an ore hauling carrier; however, for a time she carried cargo as diverse as Detroit's automobiles and Duluth's used short pants. She was retrofitted in 1942 at the height of World War II to haul gasoline and other liquids across the Great Lakes.

After the explosion, which sent many spectators and boats flying into the air, the Meteor remained aflame. Superior firefighters estimated the gasoline would continue burning until there was none left; there was some speculation that the fire might spread across the bay to the Park Pointe airport, but it remained unclear how many contaminants in the bay were flammable.

The Dragon Festival held no insurance policy on the event. In an act of frontier justice only possible in Wisconsin, several of the promoters remain today in local prisons to ensure that someone is held responsible for what was obviously a terrible, tragic accident.

Tsongas went on to capture first place in the "expansive/roomy dragon" category. The prize included a three-night stay at the luxury Sundown Motel along shores of northern Minnesota's picturesque Rocky Run River.

Both Chamberlain's dragon boat and the S.S. Meteor were destroyed in the blaze, said to be the largest fire on Lake Superior since the sinking of the F. Scott Fitzgerald.