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Parade organizers: show will go on without burned floats

May 21, 1997

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) _ You might call it the ``Virtual Parade.″

After a fire left 10 of the 500 Festival Parade’s 14 floats in smoldering ruins, the parade’s organizers were quick to hatch an alternative plan: The destroyed floats will live on as billboards mounted on flatbed trucks.

Celebrities, including comedians Ruth Buzzi and Tommy Smothers, will ride on the truckbeds beneath giant artist’s sketches of the missing floats.

``The show is definitely going to go on. It’s going to be a great show,″ said J. Albert Smith Jr., president of 500 Festival Associates Inc. ``Larry Bird will be there, and he’ll definitely be a big draw.″

No one was injured in Wednesday morning’s fire at the warehouse owned by ExpoDesign, the floats’ builder. Fire investigators say a worker using a welding torch sparked the fire, which caused about $1 million in damage.

The floats, financed by local companies and valued at about $300,000, were nearly complete, said ExpoDesign owner Mark Thornton. His company has built the floats for the parade the past three years.

``We love what we do and they (the workers) put their hearts in them,″ Thornton said.

Four floats slated to take part in the parade _ held the day before the scheduled running of The Indianapolis 500 each year since 1957 _ escaped destruction.

One was stored outside the warehouse. Three others were being built elsewhere.

Perry Township Fire Department spokesman Lt. Derek Bradburn said an ExpoDesign worker set one of the floats on fire Tuesday evening while using a welding torch.

The welder and other workers thought they had put the fire out, but it apparently reignited after they left the warehouse about 11 p.m. Tuesday, Bradburn said.

``The floats were made out of real lightweight materials, like balsa wood. By the time we got there was nothing we could do to save them,″ he said.

In the wake of the fire, two floats in storage from previous parades are being put back into service, said Ryan Chelli, a 500 Festival spokesman. One will carry the 500 Festival Queen and her court; the second will carry Indianapolis Motor Speedway officials.

``We’ve always been afraid of it raining on our parade, but I guess we should have been afraid of the spark,″ he said.

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