‘It’s just unpredictable’

Firefighter James Bates scoops the winning flamingo out of the Monongahela River following the West Virginia Three Rivers Festival Floating Flamingo Race Saturday. The event benefits the United Way of Marion County.

Dropping 353 pink flamingoes into the Monongahela River from the High Level Bridge to see which one travels downstream fastest might seem like a whimsical diversion.

But apparently, the United Way of Marion County’s fund-raiser that took place Saturday as part of the Three Rivers Festival also had a scientific bent.

Firefighters conducted three test drops and determined that washers needed to be placed in the small, inflatable birds.

“During the initial tests, we noticed that the flamingoes had a tendency to float and flip up,” said Fairmont Fire Department Chief Gregg Freme. “Being upside down inhibited their movement, so we experimented with some washers.”

A rather large one was chosen and placed in each bird, and in the spirit of the fund-raising event, were supplied by Fastenal.

Still, that was not the only variable that helped push bird No. 201, paid for by Jesse Garcia, over the finish line, winning the owner $100 and a choice of either two nights at the North Hills Holiday Inn in Pittsburgh or one night at the Inner Harbor Holiday Inn in Baltimore.

After a group of firefighters dropped the birds into the Mon, where they landed with a loud plopping noise shortly after 1 p.m., spectators watched as they made their way downstream.

The birds then changed course and formation more than once depending on the wind and a couple of jet skiers who created ripples in the water, sending the inflated flock of flamingoes toward the west bank. That eventually prompted Freme and United Way Development Director Judy Foster to make a determination to end the race before the birds got caught up in some debris and stopped moving.

“It’s just unpredictable,” said Freme, who radioed to two firefighters in a recovery boat on the river and told them to get the birds in first and second place. A second-place prize, a train excursion on the C.P. Huntington Railroad on Oct. 22, had emerged in recent days, Foster said.

“That hasn’t been announced,” she said. “That will be a surprise for the second-place winner.”

That ended up being the purchaser of flamingo No. 225, Tom Kliethermes.

Participants could pay $5 for one flamingo or $25 for six, Foster said, and after expenses, she and Toni Balenger, the United Way’s administrative assistant, expect to raise $1,500 for the organization’s member agencies.

That’s more than the organization raised last fall with the fund-raiser that led to Saturday’s flamingo drop, the annual Flamingo Flocking campaign. In that campaign, donors can “purchase” a certain amount of pink flamingoes of the plastic variety and have them planted in an unsuspecting person’s yard or garden with a sign that says, “You’ve been flocked.”

Last fall, that campaign raised about $1,000, Balenger said, although it has raised $1,500 the year before.

“We wanted something that would tie-in to the Flamingo Flocking campaign,” Foster said.

United Way officials offered to split proceeds with the Three Rivers Festival, which wrapped up Saturday, but Foster said festival organizers wanted the United Way to have all the funds.

The 2005-2006 campaign fell short of its $350,000 overall goal, Balenger said, with about 82 percent, or $287,000, raised.

Rick Bailey of State Farm Insurance underwrote the inflatable flamingoes, and the Holiday Inn Fairmont helped secure the rooms in Baltimore and Pittsburgh, Foster said.

“It really has been a community effort,” she said.

E-mail Mary Wade Burnside at mwburnside@timeswv.com.

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