By Robb Murray
The Free Press
As smoke plumed into the morning sky, flames swallowed walls and floors and firefighters fought in vain to save the Chesley Roller Sport Park, the faces on the young people gathered a parking lot away said everything that needed saying about what this loss meant.
For these hoodie-wearing teens who call the skate park their "home away from home," witnessing this scene was like watching the slow death of a very dear friend.
"Everyone who goes here is like my family," 13-year-old Andrew Slocum said through tears. "And now ... it's just gone. It's like my second home. I love this place."
(Here is a Free Press report on the fire that includes video and reports from others via Twitter)
By 11 a.m. Saturday it was still too early for firefighters to say what caused the fire. Calls to 911 began coming in around 9:40 a.m. or so. Firefighters arrived within minutes, but by then it may have already been too late. Lt. Scott LeBrun of the Mankato Department of Public Safety, said he was among the first to respond and when he arrived, flames were already coming through the roof.
As far as he could tell there was no one inside the structure during the fire. LeBrun said they called State Fire Marshal's office to handle the investigation. Given the extent of the damage, LeBrun said, it could be difficult to determine the fire's origin. The fire marshal along with Mankato police offiers have been interviewing witnesses to try and piece together what happened.
Word spread quickly among the skateboarding community and one by one they arrived at the park. Some shed tears, others exchanged hugs. Most stood and watched the grand spectacle silently, helplessly.
"I've been coming here since I was 10," said Evan Holmen, 18. "They have an amazing staff, everyone's always so polite, everyone always supports us all. It's indescribable."
Nikki Mason, mother of 13-year-old skater Taylor Mason, said the loss of the park was heart breaking.
"This is his social circle," she said. "He's here every day it's open."
Just where they'll be able to go now to skate is unknown. But thought is already being given to rebuilding.
John Kind, CEO of the Mankato Family YMCA (which operates Chesley Roller Sport Park), said moments after learning fire had claimed the park, he was on the phone to Jonathan Zierdt, president and CEO of Greater Mankato Growth. The two decided to act immediately and called an emergency meeting of the YMCA's executive committee.
Kind didn't want to say definitively that they would rebuild, but he said that's what he hopes will happen, and he will approach the coming discussions with that in mind.
The skate park, in addition to meaning a lot to the kids who use it, means a lot to Kind.
Betty Chesley was the driving force behind the building of the park. During her life in Mankato she was quite philanthropic. But perhaps her most visible contribution was funding the skate park.
While living in California she noticed the proliferation of skate parks. She watched the skateboarding kids get better and better and marveled at their athleticism. Why, she wondered, shouldn't these kids get the same financial treatment kids in more mainstream sports get?
So she built it. And they came.
Kind visited Chesley weekly until her death a few years ago, and ever since his first days as CEO of the Y he's been a champion for the skate park and the kids who use it.
He was helping his daughter move into a new apartment not far from the skate park when he noticed smoke in the sky. Moments later, his phone rang.
"My heart just sank," he said. "It was like I didn't hear it at first. ... My main concern was, 'What are these kids going to do?'" That's when he made that call to Zierdt.
In another stroke of bad luck, the Y had just completed a renovation of all the jumps and quarter pipes inside the park. They even added some smaller equipment so younger kids could join. After a month-long hiatus, Chesley Roller Sport Park was just about to reopen.
For now, there will be a void. You can't really winterize a skateboard.
"During winter it's the worst," Slocum said. "We can't skate in the streets."