The Science Channel pulls out, officials looking for new funding

Punkin Chunkin fans, rejoice! Worldwide Championship Punkin Chunkin officials announced Saturday, Feb. 11, that the Sussex County tradition will continue in 2017.

WCPC President Frank Payton addressed speculation on the future at the Lewes Public Library. He announced this year’s Chunkin will be held Nov. 3-5 on the same Bridgeville farm it was held last year. However, a major source of funding since 2008, The Science Channel, has opted not to return.

“We have appreciated their relationship over the years in helping promote our event worldwide and we wish them the best,” Payton said. “A major portion of the funding we need to operate has gone with them. We will need to establish mutually beneficial partnerships for the upcoming year.”

A nonprofit tradition

Punkin Chunkin got underway in 1986 and grew into the massive nonprofit fundraiser it is today, attracting spectators by the tens of thousands.

“It’s a Delaware tradition,” said Payton. “It’s part of Americana. There’s too much at stake to give up now.”

Punkin Chunkin is completely volunteer-run, and since 2000, over $1 million has been raised and distributed to local and national nonprofits. WCPC has spent about $100,000 per year, in recent years, on local government services like the Department of Transportation, state police, EMS and fire departments. In 2016, $150,000 was raised at the Chunk, $50,000 of which was distributed to nonprofits.

“We are a 501c3,” said Payton. “We exist in an effort to give back.”

Accidents and injuries

Two major injuries have occurred at past Punkin Chunkins, both causing major setbacks.

In 2011, Daniel Fair was volunteering at the event, helping to determine the distance of each chunk. He was riding an ATV when it flipped, causing him a severe spinal cord injury. Fair filed a lawsuit in 2013 that was later “dismissed with prejudice,” but the damage was done. Organizers couldn’t move forward until they had protection from similar potential lawsuits. The Chunk was dormant in 2014 and 2015; Payton and others were finally able to negotiate adequate insurance coverage for 2016.

Spirits were high when Punkin Chunkin returned in 2016. Alcohol was no longer allowed in “the pit,” or along the firing line, an area only accessible by media, team members and officials. Mandatory safety inspections before each chunk were instituted. Things went smoothly until just before 3 p.m. on the final day, Nov. 6.

The door of an air cannon named “Pumpkin Reaper” blew off during launch. Parts flew into the air and a 39-year-old woman was struck in the head and face. She was flown to Christiana in critical condition. A 56-year-old male was also treated for non-life-threatening injuries.

Payton said he had no updates on the injured woman, who was working as a producer for The Science Channel and wearing a hard hat when she was injured. CNN identified her as Suzanne Dakessian, of New York, and reported in late Nov. 2016 that it would be a year before doctors could assess her injuries’ long-term effect.

Payton declined to comment on whether or not legal issues had arisen from Dakessian’s injuries, but said the incident is under review by an internal safety committee.

“We’ve been doing this for 30 years, and our track record speaks for itself,” he said. “Anytime a situation pops up, it is thoroughly reviewed.”

WCPC needs support

WCPC has no specific fundraising goal for the coming year, but Payton stressed that support is needed. He pointed out the ways in which Punkin Chunkin benefits the community, through economic impact, nonprofit donations and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education.

“If you are a network that is looking for a highly rated topic for a television show we want to talk to you,” he said. “If you are a company that would like to take full advantage of our advertising capabilities and the attention we receive, we want to talk to you. If you’re an individual that wants us to continue on, we want to talk to you as well.”

A donation page has been set up at http://www.punkinchunkin.com/weneedhope, and general inquiries can be made by emailing info@punkinchunkin.com.

“We really believe that traditions matter,” Payton said, “And this is one tradition we want to see continue.”