10 Years Ago Tonight: Zamboni Explodes, Peterson Arena Burns

Tonight – Dec. 19, 2014 – marks the 10th anniversary of the night a Zamboni exploded and sparked a fire that destroyed Peterson Arena in West Duluth. Thanks to Perfect Duluth Day for the reminder of the anniversary.

Here’s a look back at some stories and photos from the News Tribune files, starting with this story and photos that ran the next day – Dec. 20, 2004:

Duluth firefighters run hoses to battle a fire at Peterson Arena after a Zamboni exploded on Dec. 19, 2004. (Justin Hayworth / News Tribune)

BLAST, FIRE GUT ARENA

By Christa Lawler, News Tribune

A Zamboni exploded Sunday night inside Peterson Arena in West Duluth, starting a fire at the ice rink at Wheeler Fields.

About 30 people — two broomball teams and a handful of fans — were inside the building at the time of the explosion. One player was taken to the hospital. The extent of his injuries was not known.

A small blast at 9:40 p.m. was followed by a larger explosion, which knocked the doors off the boards surrounding the ice surface onto the ice.

Spectator Cade Ledingham, who was in the arena and witnessed the explosion, estimated that four players were thrown from the ice by the blast.

The building was quickly evacuated and the players watched the fire from a small warming house about 30 yards away. Both teams confirmed that all of their players and fans were accounted for, but all of their belongings — including street clothes, keys and even shoes — were inside the burning building.

The Duluth Police Department blocked off busy Grand Avenue as fire crews struggled to battle the fire. The temperature hovered near zero at the time of the explosion.

Duluth firefighters battle a fire at Peterson Arena after a Zamboni exploded on Dec. 19, 2004. (Justin Hayworth / News Tribune)

By 10:15 p.m., the fire had engulfed the north side of the building, at 3501 Grand Ave. Police cleared out the warming house when it looked like the fire might reach nearby power lines. Power was cut to the area at 10:25 p.m. A Duluth Transit Authority bus was brought in to pick up the players.

Joe Buckley, the Zamboni driver, said he was sweeping up when the blast occurred. He thought propane tanks had caused the explosion.

A Zamboni is a vehicle used to resurface ice.

Player Ryan Ringsred, who was bandaged, had picked small pieces of Plexiglas from the back of his neck. He was on the ice when the explosion occurred.

“I was facing the boards when they blew up,” Ringsred said. “I was on the ice and the Zamboni blew up behind me. I was flat on the ice.”

Even his helmet was dented.

“It’s brand new,” he said. “It did its job, I guess.”

There were about seven minutes left in the broomball game between the Rapid Fire and Budweiser teams when the blast occurred.

“These are two teams that battle every year for the league championship,” said player Dave Reyelts, who was in the penalty box at the time. “It puts things in perspective. When it happened, guys from both teams were grabbing each other. Even in rivalry, the guys were looking out for each other.”

Brandon Kolquist, another player, also had small cuts on the back of his neck.

“I just got blown over the boards with the explosion,” he said. “It was crazy. Everybody was trying to hit one door at the same time.”

Here’s a follow-up story and photos that ran Dec. 21, 2004:

Duluth firefighters inspect the interior of Peterson Arena on Dec. 20, 2004, after a major fire the night before. (Bob King / News Tribune)

YOUTH HOCKEY LOSES RINK; DAMAGE MAY BE $850,000

By Mark Stodghill and Scott Thistle, News Tribune 

The loss of one of its two indoor hockey arenas is a major blow to the Duluth Amateur Hockey Association.

“We’re down a facility, and this is the prime time of the season,” DAHA Executive Director Clarke Coole said. “This is going to impact our program enormously.”

Coole met with Duluth city officials Monday to discuss the explosion and fire that destroyed Peterson Arena on Sunday night in the midst of a broomball game.

DAHA serves more than 800 youth hockey players, and tournaments were scheduled every weekend in the building through January, February and two weeks in March, Coole said.

The building’s loss also creates a hardship for Duluth high school boys and girls hockey teams, who practiced at Peterson, Coole said.

“Right now, we’re looking for a short-term fix to salvage this year,” Coole said. “We’re going to need a lot of city officials’ support for the kids.”

Coole’s organization will try to get ice time from the University of Minnesota Duluth and the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center. Other area youth programs have already offered to help.

“There’s been tons of support from area associations — Cloquet, Proctor, Hermantown, Superior and Mars Lakeview Arena,” Coole said. “They’re asking if there’s anything they can do to help out with bits and pieces (of ice time). The support has been awesome.”

The Duluth Central-Denfeld girls high school hockey team had four practices scheduled at Peterson that must be rescheduled, coach Shawna Davidson said. She’ll talk with DECC officials to see if there are any times available. The team normally practices at the DECC, but had several Wednesdays scheduled at the West Duluth arena because the DECC ice wasn’t available until after 9 p.m.

Kevin Smalley, the Denfeld boys hockey coach, has rescheduled his team’s Peterson practice dates to before school at the DECC, Davidson said.

Exterior view of Peterson Arena in West Duluth on Monday morning, Dec. 20. 2004, after the fire. Broomball players and friends of players (right) leave after looking through the equipment bags for anything salvageable. There was little worth keeping. (Bob King / News Tribune)

INSURANCE QUESTIONS

On Monday night, the Duluth City Council wasted no time in weighing in on the loss. City Attorney Bryan Brown told councilors he was still investigating whether the arena is insured. Although two buildings at the Wheeler Fields athletic complex are insured, the policy is somewhat unclear as to exactly which two, he said.

“We have reported the loss to the insurance company,” Brown said. “I am hoping that the reply is that there is no problem with coverage.”

City Administrative Assistant Mark Winson said that, if necessary, the city could shift some money from next year’s capital improvement budget to help rebuild the arena.

Because of the fire, Councilor Neill Atkins said he would like the city to take another look at what facilities the city insures.

Construction workers with Advanced Restoration and Construction begin work after their lunch break on a protective roof that will cover the fire damage at Peterson Arena on dec. 21, 2004. The protective roof is for insurance purposes. (Amanda Odeski / News Tribune)

DAMAGE $850,000

City fire officials said Monday the blast was probably the result of leaking propane from a Zamboni ice-resurfacing machine. Damage was estimated at $850,000 by city officials, according to a release issued by Mayor Herb Bergson.

Propane used to fuel the Zamboni built up in the resurfacing machine’s storage room. It was eventually ignited by the flame of a gas-fired water heater and exploded, Duluth Fire Chief John Strongitharm said.

Broomball players and fans, who escaped serious injury, said the initial blast blew the doors to the storage room across the rink, injuring some players. Others were injured by shards of Plexiglas, blasted into their skin. But most of the players were at the opposite end of the rink from the explosion, Strongitharm said.

“I would think it is very fortunate that the explosion happened when the people were away from that door, and they all had the sense to drop their broomball sticks and get out,” Strongitharm said. He said calm, quick thinking by players and fans probably saved lives.
After the initial blast, there were at least two other explosions, which Strongitharm believes may have been caused by empty propane tanks stored in the arena.

Another view of the interior of the Peterson Arena on Monday morning, Dec. 20, 2004 after the devastation of Sunday night’s fire caused by a Zamboni explosion. (Bob King / News Tribune)        

DON’T JUST BLOW UP

Propane is the fuel generally used by resurfacing machines, although some are operated by electric batteries and others use natural gas, said Walt Bruley, who has operated resurfacing machines for more than 30 years.

Bruley, a district representative for the Minnesota Ice Arenas Managers’ Association, said all DAHA resurfacing crews regularly attend safety training.

“They’re one of our star groups when it comes to that,” Bruley said.

It would be highly unlikely that the Zamboni would actually have exploded by itself, he said. The machines are built with safety valves to contain potential propane leaks, he said.

“These things don’t just blow up,” said Bruley, who was on his way to drive a Zamboni at the DECC on Monday afternoon. “There were many things in that room that probably could have blown up besides the machine.”

Propane is generally considered a safer fuel than gasoline because it doesn’t ignite as easily and it has an additive that gives it a distinct smell, making leaks easily detectable. Propane, which is heavier than air, generally sinks to floor or ground level, where it can easily be vented, Bruley said.

“If there was a leak, it would have been something that could have been smelled,” Bruley said. “This is a very, very rare occasion.”

He said Sunday’s explosion was truly a freak incident. “In my 30 years, I’ve never heard of another situation like this,” he said.

Lynn Skafte (left) and Steph Truscott, good friends of the adult broomball team whose equipment was smoke and water-damaged by the Peterson Arena fire, pick through the equipment bags hoping to find some salvageable items on Dec. 20, 2004. (Bob King / News Tribune)

NO FIREFIGHTERS HURT

Firefighters weren’t injured by subsequent explosions, Strongitharm said. A second blast occurred just after a frozen fire hydrant prompted firefighters to seek an alternative water source, Strongitharm said.

“It’s hard to say what impact the frozen hydrant had,” Strongitharm said. “It was freezing cold and it was fully involved when we got there. They did run out of water . . . but right after they ran out of water, the explosion took place.”

Extreme cold and a slope made containing the blaze difficult. “There were a number of falls because we were fighting on a hill, but no major injuries,” Strongitharm said.

The speed at which the fire spread and the heat were remarkable, he said. “It was a surprise,” Strongitharm said.

The fire was so intense that the building’s steel framework bent in places, which may make it unsalvageable. The arena had just been outfitted with new rink boards, which were destroyed in the inferno.

“It doesn’t look good for the building,” Strongitharm said.

The arena’s days may have been numbered anyway. It was proposed to be leveled with other neighboring structures, including a closed gas station and the athletic complex tennis courts, to make way for a proposed $55 million sports complex and community center.

The city project hinges on funding from the $1.5 billion estate of McDonald’s restaurants founder Ray Kroc and his wife, Joan Kroc. They left the money to the Salvation Army to build sports and community complexes nationwide. Salvation Army is expected to announce by spring which communities will get the money.

Staff writers Chuck Frederick, Chad Thomas and Nikki Overfelt contributed to this report.

Peterson Arena was razed and not rebuilt. After a number of years, western Duluth finally got another ice rink when the Duluth Heritage Sports Center opened.

Here’s one more view of Peterson Arena from before the fire, during a horseshoe tournament on July 7, 2001:

Donald Stangland (left) and Tom Warneke, class G horseshoe pitchers participating in the 38th annual Duluth Open Horseshoe Tournament, split hairs determining points during their match Saturday afternoon, July 7, 2001, at Peterson Arena. Stangland beat Warneke, 29-22. (Rick Scibelli / News-Tribune)

Share your memories of Peterson Arena by posting a comment.