LINCOLN PARK — A large fire possibly caused by illegal fireworks melted a garbage can and charred a 20-foot patch in the middle of the $2 million dollar artificial turf soccer field in Lincoln Park over the holiday weekend.
The extent of the damage remains unknown, according to the Chicago Park District, but it forced Chicago Sport and Social to cancel all matches scheduled through the end of this week.
Soccer players who practice on the turf daily said a group of about 100 people gathered for a July 4 family reunion started the fire about 5 p.m.
A witness said a group was lighting smaller fireworks in a grassy area away from the turf field, but later lit larger fireworks in the middle of the soccer field.
They then either lit fireworks in a garbage can in the middle of the field or threw smoldering remains into the can, according to Eric Davenport, a 26-year-old former collegiate soccer player who saw the blaze.
"The can burst on fire," Davenport said. "The can was burning for 20 minutes; they couldn't put it out."
Davenport, who plays on the field daily, said firefighters were never called.
On Monday the artificial turf remained charred, with fireworks and pieces of plastic melted into the field.
A spokeswoman for the Park District said an outside contractor could take three to five days to evaluate the damage.
Because of the severity of the damage, "It was something we couldn’t handle in-house," Park District spokeswoman Jessica Maxey-Faulkner said.
Davenport, who has played on numerous turf fields over his career, said the damage looked like it would cost thousands of dollars to repair.
The soccer field is arguably the nicest public pitch in the city, several players said Monday, all of whom made a point to steer clear of the charred area.
"It sucks for all of us. The leagues were supposed to start this week," Davenport said Monday afternoon. "You know it wasn't people who use the field. The guys who come out here would never do something that stupid."
A group of about 25 players from the Chicago Eagles, a Christian soccer organization, had planned on running drills for a youth camp on the field Monday afternoon, and instead attempted to clean up the mess.
The group consisted of collegiate and professional players from around the country, and even included some international players, all of whom were disgusted by the damage.
"We would kill for turf fields at our parks," said Ricardo Aguilera, a 23-year-old player from Texas. "We came out to this turf, and it's like wow."
The high-quality field has been a point of controversy since 2006 when it was revealed that Latin School of Chicago was to get first choice to rent the public field in exchange for putting up $2 million to help build it, according to a Chicago Magazine report.
A group of neighborhood activists fought the so-called "land grab" and took the matter to court, putting an end to the school's first dibs on the field, but that meant the public paid back the $2 million to the school.