Gasoline lit on fire damages Ridgefield’s Governor Park infield
As police investigate who dumped gasoline and set it on fire at Ciuccoli Field Saturday morning, the town of Ridgefield has begun its costly cleanup process.
Six to eight inches of gas-soaked soil was excavated from the infield Saturday night into Sunday afternoon, and five or six containers of contaminated dirt were transported from the site Monday, April 8.
What will the damage cost?
“It’s looking like it will cost $50,000 and could even exceed that,” said First Selectman Rudy Marconi Sunday night.
“It doesn’t seem like a lot but it’s a very, very expensive process.”
Marconi was mum on who was responsible for pouring 25 gallons of gasoline onto the home field of the Ridgefield High School baseball team. He indicated that 75 to 100 people witnessed the incident — with some recording it on their cell phones — and that it was still under police investigation.
“They collected quite a bit of evidence yesterday,” Marconi said. “Whether or not someone gets charged, it’s the police department’s decision to make....
“There were plenty of witnesses,” he added. “I don’t know how they ignited it but it could be out there on one of the cell phone videos.”
Marconi said the high school team was scheduled to take on Amity at 11 a.m. Saturday, and when parents from both sides showed up they noticed the field was soggy.
“The basepath — the dirt part of the field — was wet and it was evident that they’d have to relocate or cancel because of the conditions,” he said. “Someone had the idea to put gas on the surface, let it burn to dry up the water and make the field playable.
“Unfortunately, it was not a very good idea,” he added. “In theory it sounded plausible, I guess, to those who participated.”
One thing was clear to Marconi when he arrived Saturday afternoon: Nobody considered the environmental consequences.
“I’m not aware of who exactly it was who got the gas but what we do know is that someone did use some gas around third base and that seemed to work,” he said. “Others then went to get more gas and began spreading it from second over to the third ... they lit up that little area and it dried it up. Everyone thought it was working. They thought they could take care of the whole field with gas. ... One person said they had done it in the past.”
Marconi said that if anybody would have researched the practice of using gas to dry up wet soil that they would have found it doesn’t work.
“It’s been done before, and every situation that’s out there ends with negative consequences,” he said.
“Maybe it worked 50 to 60 years when there were no environmental regulations but nowadays it’s a definite no-no.”
Not student, town employee
Photos on social media showed both baseball teams — Ridgefield and Amity — in the dugout Saturday afternoon, and video footage during the fire shows a combination of parents and coaches trying to smother the flames with dirt.
Maroni said it was not a premeditated incident and he did not believe it to be an act of vandalism.
“I wasn’t there when it happened but I don’t believe it had anything to do with student vandalism,” Marconi said Monday.
“It was an attempt to correct something — a wet field, and it just wasn’t a smart move at all,” he added. “... I don’t know who the people are who did this but I hope they come forward before legal action is forced upon them.”
Marconi said that the person, or persons, responsible for lighting the 25 gallons of gas on fire is not a town employee.
“This was a decision that was made right before the game and it was made in order to play the game that day,” he said.
Bob Alicea, who helped fundraise to build Governor Park, did not respond to several calls and emails from The Press Monday. Athletic Director Dane Street also did not respond when reached for comment.
The Ridgefield Police Department, which is located directly across from Governor Park on East Ridge Road, said its investigation is ongoing and couldn’t confirm whether students were involved in the incident. The police also didn’t want to confirm or deny whether any suspects were town employees.
“The investigation is ongoing and the RPD is attempting to get all of the facts and circumstances of this incident,” Capt. Shawn Platt told The Press Monday. “It would be irresponsible of the Ridgefield Police Department to release any information that is not confirmed as true.”
Platt encouraged anyone from with information to contact Officer Dan Gjodesen at 203-438-6531.
Workers from the state’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) responded to the scene Saturday along with Pete Hill, director of Ridgefield Public Works.
Marconi said officials from the parks and recreation and highway departments were also called, as well as the fire department.
“It was clear by the time all of us were on the scene that it was a contamination issue,” Marconi said.
DEEP employees worked with Hill to find a certified emergency response company that specializes in hazardous waste removal.
“They began digging around 8 p.m. last night and went until around midnight,” Marconi said. “They started first thing Sunday and concluded around 5:30-6 p.m.”
Rest of week
The spill team transported at least five containers full of contaminated soil off site Monday, Marconi said.
“Samples of remaining soil have been taken and will be submitted to lab first thing in the morning,” the first selectman said Sunday night.
He estimated that the team could return to the field possibly later in the week around Friday.
“There were high school games scheduled that have been moved to the opponents’ field Monday and Wednesday,” Marconi said.
Saturday’s game in Ridgefield was moved to Amity after the blaze.
For its part, the baseball team is moving forward with the season and trying to ignore the news surrounding what happened to their home field.
“We like this whole situation is a distracting and pulling us away from our main objective which is to have fun and play baseball,” one anonymous player told The Press. “...We are going to move on from it.”
Marconi said the incident could be used as a teachable moment for people everywhere.
“Everybody is helpful and wants to jump in to get something done,” he said, “but what’s important to remember out of this is that if something doesn’t seem right or doesn’t look right, in all likelihood it isn’t right. I had several people come up to me at the field and say that it felt wrong but nobody said stop ...
“I believe one person went over to the police station, and I’m not sure if it was someone from Ridgefield or from the visiting team but the bottom line is you cannot spread 25 gallons of gas on the infield of a baseball field — it’s all clay and it soaks right in.”
Marconi said the one positive from the event was that no one was injured, and no one was in danger.
“First question our insurance company asked was, ‘Is everyone OK?’ and fortunately we could tell them yes — that’s the good news.”
Looking for other areas of optimism, the first selectman said that contamination was limited to the infield and didn’t spread into the grass.
“It was strictly in the dirt and didn’t travel anywhere else, thankfully,” he said. “It was isolated to the specific areas where it was poured and we were able to get it out early before any rain. We had good weather this weekend and that helped limit the potential seriousness of the contamination. If it had rained, the water could have soaked it and spread it more.”
Despite Mother Nature lending a helping hand, gasoline being poured onto a baseball field and lit on fire by a crowd of parents seemed to draw the attention of the town’s insurance company.
“One of the insurance representatives I spoke with this weekend said that in all of the years he’s been in the business this was in the top five ‘wait, what happened?’ phone calls he’s ever received,” Marconi said. “And they’ve received a lot of claims over the years.”