Chaos erupted at Punkin Chunkin Nov. 6 when a cannon malfunctioned, sending a large, metal plate flying into the air. It struck and critically injured a 39-year-old producer working on a Science Channel production.
“I can't get the sound of the hard helmet out of my head to be honest with you. That plastic, cracking sound is what you heard when the plate hit her,” said spectator Damian Muzzi, who was about 50 feet away.
It was about 2:45 p.m. as the team Punkin Reaper was preparing to launch a pumpkin from an air cannon. Police say the cannon malfunctioned, blowing off a trap door used to load the pumpkin into place. The door flew into the air before striking the woman in the head and face.
Muzzi said the woman was in the wrong place at the wrong time. A few seconds and the metal projectile would have hit the ground. “It hit her in the hard helmet, and she dropped,” he said.
Delaware State Police first reported that the woman died, but that report was corrected 15 minutes later, stating the woman was alive and critically injured.
First responders at the scene – medics, troopers and other emergency responders – initially said the woman had died after a flying, object struck her in the head, but they stablized her and updated their original prognosis, said Master Cpl. Gary Fournier of the Delaware State Police.
“The information provided to us was that she died,” Fournier said. “It's chaotic and information is going back and forth. The information is what we had at the time.”
Glenn Marshall, a special operations coordinator with the Sussex County EMS, who worked at Punkin Chunkin, also said the accident scene was chaotic. He said comments could have been made during those initial minutes that could have been misconstrued.
Marshall said a medic assigned to the firing line area was at the scene seconds after the woman was struck. “She was loaded within minutes. Everybody did their due diligence,” he said.
Only competitors and event staff are allowed in the firing line area, Marshall said. All spectators are kept at a significant distance from the firing line.
Milton resident Michele Sapp was in line about six spaces away from the cannon that malfunctioned when she heard the explosion.
“You pressurize this stuff up so much, eventually something's gonna happen. Something's gotta give,” she said.
In her 15 years of participating in the world class pumpkin launching event, Sapp said she's never seen anything as serious as Sunday's accident. Event organizers, however, told participants not to comment during the ongoing investigation, she said.
Punkin Chunkin organizers were mum on any details of the event that features teams from around the world all vying to launch a pumpkin as far as possible across a field. Sunday's event, held on Wheatley's Farm in Bridgeville, was the first held in two years after a lawsuit forced a change in venue.
“We have no comment,” said Frank Shade, vice president of Punkin Chunkin. He referred all calls to Paul Schur of The Science Channel, which plans to air a segment on the event.
Schur said the woman injured during the competition was a producer for Sharp Entertainment, a New York production company contracted by The Science Channel to film Punkin Chunkin. He did not provide her name or any other information. Sharp Entertainment did not return a call requesting comment before the Cape Gazette's deadline.
Police say the woman remains in critical condition at Christiana Hospital after she was flown there from Nanticoke Hospital.
“We have no comment until we have a better picture of what is going on,” Schur said.
A 56-year-old man was also injured in the incident. He was transported to Nanticoke Memorial Hospital where he was treated for nonlife-threatening injuries.
Sapp, captain of the Bad Hair Day Team, said safety regulations over Punkin Chunkin competitors have tightened over the years. All machines must receive a boiler certificate from the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control prior to competition, and a Punkin Chunkin security committee inspects equipment before the chunk begins.
“There are very much safety measures. They're on it,” Sapp said. “But I don't care how much you check stuff – if it's going to happen, it's going to happen.”
Sapp said this was her final year competing in the Chunk, but hopes the event returns despite the tragic turn.
“At the end of the day, it's a game,” she said. “I hope that it's not over. I really do hope it's not over.”
Editor’s note: In an earlier version of this story, the spelling of Science Channel representative Paul Schur’s name was incorrect and participant Michele Sapp was about six spaces away from the Punkin Reaper team, not four.