SUN ‘n FUN responds to crisis

Story and Photo By Drew Steketee

“The most amazing thing that has happened at SUN ‘n FUN,” said event president John Burton late Thursday, March 31 after “a tornado, a micro-burst, I don’t know” swept through the Lakeland, Florida, fly-in and air show. Local media reported multiple tornadoes north and south of the Lakeland area during the day including the major hit on Lakeland-Linder Airport at noontime.

Burton told gathered media that 15 show attendees were injured and transported to the on-site Sun ‘n Fun medical facility. Of those, seven were then transported to the Lakeland Medical Center. None suffered serious injuries, Burton said.

Some 40-50 aircraft were damaged. No accounting was given between exhibitor and attendee aircraft, but Burton said a center of heavy damage was the manufacturers’ exhibit area. My quick survey revealed major damage around the Aviat exhibit, with a number of damaged Husky aircraft, and further west where an LSA had perched atop an Eclipse jet. Beyond that, police kept even media away, claiming “environmental hazard.” Burton confirmed there was leaked fuel in the area, but that heavy rains late this afternoon would help drain it.

Burton was quick and voluminous in his praise for local emergency agencies and SNF volunteers. The event was aggressively cleared of visitors. By mid-afternoon, streams of the last cars and walkers were heading out of the show. No one could get in. Even media had challenges gaining admission.

Campers were allowed to stay on the grounds; Burton noted some of them would have no other place to go. In further praise for local government, Burton noted that a nearby school district offered to open schools overnight for displaced show-goers. The City of Lakeland had offered emergency shelters as well. There was no information on whether either offer was taken.

Burton noted that damage in the campground area was minor, although the area would be re-inspected late Thursday.
He also corrected an erroneous report of heavy damage to the British Air Cadets’ campground. Burton was especially touched by reports that local citizens in the Lakeland area were volunteering to take-in displaced tent campers for the night.

Grass field parking lots and the dirt roads in them were rutted muddy quagmires. At 5PM, a number of tow trucks, lights flashing, were circulating to help stranded cars out of the mud. That alone was dramatic confirmation of Burton’s statement that “we are already at work. Clean-up has already begun. Volunteers are righting tables, collecting garbage and helping get exhibits back.”

Asked whether impassable parking lots and dirt roads would affect opening tomorrow, Burton cited a drenching years ago that was handled using higher ground and alternate parking areas. “We’ve dealt with this before. We’ll come back better than ever,” Burton said.

He especially noted offers of help by airport management and others on LAL’s north side so that Friday aircraft arrivals could expect hard-surface (or at least firm surface) parking on the north side of Lakeland-Linder Airport. Burton passed along word there was only minor damage north of the main east-west LAL runway.

Sun ‘n Fun is shooting for an 8AM opening Friday morning, yet to be confirmed. The Blue Angels, due Thursday, will hold to their same schedule but one day later, with Thursday events to take place at the pre-scheduled time but on Friday.

“We’re going all through the night,” said Burton, who spoke to the press shortly after electrical power was restored the Media Center. Some other parts of the show may still have been down even at that late hour. The press conference was sparsely attended, since most media left the show in search of power to file their stories. Local TV and satellite trucks were heavily in attendance, but planned live shots for the evening news were quickly squelched by another downpour right at airtime.

Sun ‘n Fun public affairs staff privately voiced particular aggravation at an erroneous national story (picked up by CNN) of 70 people trapped in a collapsed exhibit hangar. A large tent did collapse with 70 folks inside, but all SNF exhibit hangars are standing and apparently undamaged. The story was corrected later, but today at Sun ‘n Fun made national news. Most here hope they’ll never see anything like it again.

Burton, speaking especially to Tampa-area and state audiences expected for SNF’s big weekend days with the Blue Angels, promised the kid-and-ice cream-cone crowd that Sun ‘n Fun would be ready. Enormous crowds are expected, as at any airshow when a big military team flies (as will the new F-22 Raptor.) Burton was working the press hard to hold the expected crowd who, in the Tampa area at least, are mightily traumatized today by the nastiest weather in years.

“We are working with local agencies so we know we are safe before we open,” said Burton, rushing out to handle his next meeting. Spaced out across the Sun ‘n Fun venue, scores of police cars and emergency vehicles — lights flashing — stood guard over the drenched scene as night approached. It looked as if they would be there all night as Sun ‘n Fun pulls its socks up, gets its act together and looks forward to great weekend weather and an 8:00AM Friday re-opening.

(c) Drew Steketee. All Rights Reserved

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