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It's a Dry Heat...
Disaster at Congress Street Expo   Wednesday February 4th

I was working on video frame grabs for the Show report last night as the storm which had been pounding southern California built up to full strength as it passed over Tucson. I wondered how the Show tents all over town were weathering the storm as winds gusted up to 50 miles per hour and the rain poured down. This morning the local news reported minor flooding around Tucson and that a tent at the Congress Street Expo had been damaged during the storm last night.

I considered checking it out for the show report, but it didn't sound like there'd been major damage, and I figured they'd probably have things patched up by the time I got there anyway. So I went to 'work' back at the Executive Inn to continue the tour I started there yesterday. A while later some rockhounds who had been to the Expo related what they'd seen to me. Time for me to really go to work...

Shown outlined in blue is the main tent at the Congress Street Expo. This picture was taken from the top of 'A' Mountain during the course of last year's show. It was a big tent, hosting 36,000 square feet of exhibits and merchandise. "Damaged" turned out to be somewhat of an understatement. The tent is history and a considerable amount of its estimated $50 million dollars worth of contents was damaged or destroyed when the tent collapsed during the storm. It was closed for the night when the incident occurred, so fortunately there was no loss of life or injury. A story on local news tonight put the time of the collapse at about 10:30 pm Monday night.

It rained heavily last night during the storm and there was minor flooding around Tucson. The total precipitation overnight was under an inch, but our desert soil saturates quickly during a heavy rain and low-lying areas flood. I was greeted by a sea of mud when I entered the Expo property. Makeshift mud bridges and islands made from pallets had been deployed to help rockhounds traverse the ankle deep areas.

Several parties interviewed at the Expo site this afternoon told me that one of the main support poles for the tent gave way and when it failed, the entire tent collapsed. Two remaining poles are shown still standing in the picture above center. The entire perimeter surrounding the area had been fenced off with 6 foot high wire mesh. The collapsed tent was declared unsafe and Tucson police officers were called in to control access and supervise the scene.

There were scores of dealers set up inside the tent. The Congress Street Expo is a retail oriented show which has many smaller tents and stalls surrounding the main tent. There's some of everything at this show, but it is particularly oriented towards lapidary, lapidary tools and equipment, rough and jewelry. However, minerals, fossils, meteorites, and crafts are also shown and sold at this major show.

Above are three pictures of one area in the main tent housing a number of lapidary equipment and tool manufacturers and suppliers. They were taken during the '97 show. Above left is Alpha Supply's area, a mail order jewelry and lapidary supply company familiar to many rockhounds. Shown above center and right is an adjacent counter and display area for GEMCO, another well known company catering to the hobby. Shown at left is today's view of the same area. The economic losses are substantial and will probably run into the millions.

The tent was laying about in numerous small pieces. It didn't seem likely to me that it had been shredded that severely by 50 mph winds. When I inquired, I was told that it had finally been cut away in sections to expose the devastation underneath. After the carcass of the dead tent had been sectioned and removed, some dealers and business owners and limited crews were allowed on site to begin salvage operations.

There were some heated discussions and plaintive appeals with police officers who were controlling access through gates in the fence. Consigning is a common practice among dealers and while there I met several parties who were very unhappy and concerned about being denied access to look for and salvage goods and material they had consigned with various registered dealers. Or at least claimed they had. See the problem?

Shown above center is one of a number of large modular steel storage containers which had been dropped around the fenced perimeter and were being used by various dealers to securely store what they had salvaged. I'm sure many of them wish their goods had been in these containers instead of the tent last night. It rained again this evening and over an inch has been predicted before this storm leaves Tucson and moves eastward.

As the sun set over this disaster there was still an incredible mess and large amounts of merchandise laying about in the mud exposed to the elements. I did not see any disaster grade portable lighting being set up, so it looked like salvage operations were going to be halted for the night as I left the Expo. Above right is a relatively rare site in Tucson - sunset illuminated snow on the Catalina Mountains down to about the 4000 foot level. This picture was taken from the Expo.

While I was on site a recurring topic of conversation and subject of speculation among rockhounds was whether there was insurance to help cover this loss. Hearsay had it that the show's promoter, Chris Hartley, had declared the disaster an act of God. Local news stated that insurance investigators and tent company representatives were already looking into why the tent collapsed and that Chris Hartley reported his attorney and insurance agents are working on liability claims. Some of the larger companies here may have had their own insurance to cover their losses, but you can be sure there were scores of uninsured ma and pops and smaller operations here who were showing everything they had. It would be surprising if some significant lawsuits aren't spawned by this disaster, and the loss and discouragement inflicted on some could well cause them to give up their businesses and hobby.

Income from this show normally constitutes a substantial percentage of annual sales for many of the impacted dealers. Joan Gordon of Gordon's Gem and Mineral from Nevada said they were ready to go after sustaining an estimated $45,000 in damages. Trays of stones and jewelry at their booth in the tent were full of water and scattered about in the mud. Velvet display pillows they were selling were ruined. Gordon's had no insurance to cover their loss.

Scuttlebutt has it another tent was in transit to replace the destroyed one. After all the salvage and cleanup is completed, the game plan is to be set up and open for business again this coming Saturday. That's going to take some real doing, but many of the dealers were also determined to stay and reopen. Kent Solberg of Kent's Tools of Tucson estimated their jewelry and lapidary tool losses at about $50,000. He also estimated that he would lose about $10,000 in sales each day the show was closed.

Rockhounds browsing the Congress Street Expo can expect some real bargains on tent and water damaged rocks and equipment when this show is back in business.


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