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Written by Caitlin Granfield, BT Contributor   
March 2017

Gas leak was behind Torch of Friendship flame issues

OTorch_1n January 21, when Coconut Grove resident Harry Gottlieb attended the Women’s March at Bayfront Park, he noticed something amiss with the Torch of Friendship. The flame was out.

“I thought, this is bizarre,” says Gottlieb. “How could it be out if this is supposed to be an eternal flame?”

The Torch is meant to burn continually, as it signifies Miami’s perpetual friendship with Latin American and Caribbean countries, notes historian and BT columnist Paul George, in this issue’s “Picture Story.”

Turns out, the problem with the flame has been ongoing for decades.

“The flame has been an issue since the Sixties,” says Tim Schmand, who oversees the Torch, Bayfront Park, and Museum Park in his role as the executive director of the Bayfront Park Management Trust.

In a manila folder containing historical documents about the Torch, he flips to a photocopy of a Miami Herald article dated 1961, about the torch that “won’t stay lit.” Written by the late Gene Miller (who won two Pulitzer Prizes during his tenure at the Herald), it revealed a solution: a $200 automatic ignition system that “shoots sparks, sparkplug style,” every time the wind blows it out.

If the flame did extinguish, a light on the city’s switchboard system would turn on, alerting operators. “It worked great 20 times,” wrote Miller.

Natural gas, provided for free from TECO Peoples Gas, fuels the Torch. Maintenance workers from Bayfront Park check it regularly and relight it with a long painting stick when it’s out, which usually happens after heavy winds or rain, says Schmand.

Torch_2

Just behind the Torch, at the edge of Bayside Marketplace, sits a small red kiosk, where Marlene Krisman of Kendall sells tour packages for the City Sightseeing bus company. She says the flame had been out for two weeks, since the beginning of February, though Gottlieb noticed had been extinguished during January’s Women’s March.

“There were people working on it, going up and down the ladder,” says Krisman. “Luckily, they fixed it.”

“It’s not the flame, it’s the idea behind it,” says her husband Ed Krisman, a tour guide with CitySightseeing. “That’s a mechanical thing. You can’t put out what it actually means,” he says.

Construction of the Torch began in August 1960 and was completed that October. Miami’s then mayor Robert King High hoped it would have the same significance as the Statue of Liberty, and position Miami as a gateway to the Americas, as Paul George points out in the second installment of his Torch history in this issue’s “Picture Story.”

For some like Krisman, the Torch brings to mind John F. Kennedy, in whose honor the Torch was dedicated in 1964, following his assassination. When he was running for president, Kennedy gave a campaign speech at the site during its construction.

“To me,” Krisman says, “it means through Kennedy’s friendship with other countries that we’re here today. With the Cuban Missile Crisis, we were this close to nuclear war,” he says, bringing his index finger an inch away from his thumb. “Because of his friendship with other countries, we averted nuclear disaster.”

Around the same time the Torch was erected, waves of Cuban immigrants started arriving in Miami.

“When you talk about Latin countries, [Kennedy] was the guy that basically invited the exiles to our country in the Sixties,” Krisman adds. “It’s because of him that we have such a large Cuban community in South Florida.”

Torch_3

As Paul George points out, the city manager at the time, Melvin L. Reese, presented to the Miami City Commission a drawing of “a tall concrete shaft topped by a continually burning flame,” symbolizing the “inter-American concept of friendship, surrounded by a keystone patio, with a wrap-around wall,” which displays seals of each Latin American country.

“All the nations of Central and South America are represented here,” says Schmand of the wall, which also boasts Caribbean countries. However, a gaping space in an otherwise symmetrical display of round medallions is apparent. “Cuba is missing,” he notes. “There’s a place for Cuba to go when Cuba is free.” He says that in the past, medallions have been stolen from the wall, especially the emblem for Haiti.

Schmand says he called Miami Shores Plumbing to address the malfunctioning Torch. Manny Chinea, who works as a supervisor for the company, discovered that the pipe supplying gas to the Torch had a hole in it.

“There was a gas leak inside the column,” he says. “There’s a pipe underground and a pipe that goes up inside the column to give gas to the torch. We cut one of the stones at the bottom, disconnected the pipe going up, and installed a new one, connecting it to the burner.”

By Tuesday, February 14, the Torch was burning again.

“The leak was 14 feet up in the air, right under the Torch,” says Chinea. “It had corrosion from being there so long.”

Natural gas leaks can cause deadly explosions, but Chinea says once he discovered the leak, he phoned TECO to shut off the gas.

“The pipe underground is as old as the one going up,” he says, “so eventually it might leak.”

Schmand says the new pipe has resolved the issue for the moment, but warns that “a big gust of wind could blow out the flame.”

Paul George says he remembers the torch being out “on occasions,” during tours that he’s led as part of his affiliation with HistoryMiami Museum. He says, though, that his best memories of the Torch are the “many, many demonstrations of a wide variety” that have been held there. “Cubans, especially, in the early years of the Torch, actively demonstrated there,” he says.

Torch_4To this day, the Torch serves as a focal place for protests, demonstrations, and rallies. On President’s Day, Cuban-born Lorenzo Canizares, helped organize a protest at the Torch of Friendship. People held up signs in front of the Torch that read, “Get Putin out of the White House,” “Not My President,” and “Dump Trump.”

The Labor Community Roundtable group, of which Canizares is the coordinator, partnered with the United Front Against Trump to protest the president’s immigration order, his promised border wall, and the Keystone XL pipeline project.

“Our other goal,” Canizares notes, “was to get the attention of local lawmakers who were home on this federal holiday. It’s a central location that everyone in Miami knows about,” he says by way of explaining why he chose the Torch of Friendship for the demonstration. “The symbol here is very important.”

He says he didn’t even notice whether the torch was lit or not. “It doesn’t matter at all.” The Torch, he says, “is symbolic of peace and love, and of all the things that make life worth living.”

As for Harry Gottlieb, who e-mailed photos of the extinguished Torch to the BT, as well as to District 2 Commissioner Ken Russell and Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado, he has a few ideas for what to do if problems with the Torch persist.

“They could eliminate the gas and put something that looks like a flame at the top,” he says, “like some kind of orange paper, or orange silk, which could blow in the wind. Or maybe they should just remove the torch and have a memorial.”

 

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