After Toxic Cleanup, Runaway Equipment Spoils Merrie Christmas Park Reopening

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Coral Gables residents have been fighting the city tooth and nail for months to clean up and reopen Merrie Christmas Park, a small green space contaminated with everything from arsenic to cadmium. Amid legal threats, the city caved in October and — with the help of an anonymous donation — agreed to haul out the toxic soil.

The park officially reopened last week — but not without a near-catastrophe for the city. A miscommunication about when the space would actually open and a runaway piece of heavy equipment combined to create a dangerous situation. 

The park's official reopening was scheduled for Friday. But earlier in the week, according to one park neighbor who asked to remain anonymous, the old fences around the site of the pile were removed, and many residents believed the park was already open. A horde of kids and parents, eager to reclaim their favorite recreational spot, soon showed up.

They were lucky no one got hurt. 
One worker was still in the park using a big yellow sodding machine, right next to an area where young kids were playing inside a fenced area with a slide. At one point he drove the machine on a nearby hill and subsequently lost control.

"He flipped it," the neighbor said. "And he had to jump off. The machine crashed through the fence." 

All the kids and parents in the area were able to get out of the way, but the fence was mangled. Startled parents were left wondering why heavy machinery was being operated in the vicinity of children. 

"It was a mistake," the neighbor said, "but it could have been really bad."      

The smashed fence, apparently, was fixed within an hour. "I've never seen a repair happen so quickly," the neighbor said. And the park officially reopened as scheduled Friday. 

Still, the park is likely to become an sticking point in the race for the District 2 city commission race. Commissioner Marc Sarnoff vocally fought neighbors over the cleanup, and among the candidates now taking on his wife — who is running to replace him on the commission — is Ken Russell, the neighborhood activist behind the cleanup push. 

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