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Guiding light

Rush County company designs burner, ignition system for New York 9/11 eternal flame memorial

By Clara Kilbourn

LA CROSSE - A Rush County company that started 40 years ago in a farmer's garage has built the burner for New York City's Sept. 11 eternal flame memorial.

"A tiny town did a big thing," New York businessman Bill Hudson said.

Hudson, a dealer for Flame Engineering Inc., La Crosse, sells custom manufactured fireplace burners made by the company.

He became involved after a NYC engineer searched the Internet for a company to design the burner and ignition system for the memorial in Battery Park. The engineer found the La Crosse company and coordinated with its NYC dealer.

"It all happened so quickly it was absolutely amazing," Flame Engineering owner Mike Pivonka said.

Pivonka was contacted, and with a three-week deadline, his company designed and built the apparatus by putting in some "extra" overtime, he said.

The flame apparatus was shipped by overnight freight, and on Sept. 9, Pivonka and Hudson, along with a team that included NYC engineers, Con Edison staff and contractors, worked toward completion of the granite memorial in time for the Sept. 11 lighting ceremony.

"It was basically a concentrated effort," Hudson said. "A wonderful experience with many, many people coming together to make something happen."

Since the dedication, Pivonka has been involved in "tweaking" the flame apparatus to meet government specifications. The flame must be able to withstand a driving rain with a 40 mph wind.

Pivonka designed a shield that keeps the rain out and sensing probes that monitor the flame, something "relatively minor," he said.

Crews who worked on the project breathed a "huge sigh of relief" when the flame was lighted, he said.

"Everything went off well; with live TV, there was no second chance," Pivonka said. "They had backup gas, electricity and two or three ways to do things. I was very proud to be associated with those guys who did a miraculous job. Our part was relatively easy."

Father-and-son team

The history of Pivonka's company dates to 1962 when his farmer father, the late Ralph C. Pivonka, developed a propane weed-burner used to burn off weeds in irrigation ditches.

"Our first marketing study was to loan them to neighbors," Pivonka said. "If they came back, we knew we needed to change; if they didn't, then we knew they were OK."

That burner continues to be produced under the Red Dragon line. The Pivonka father-and-son team went on to design and build weed burners for crops such as corn, cotton and milo.

As organic farming took hold, the idea of controlling weeds in fruits and vegetables with flames rather than chemical spray became popular, and more weed-burners were developed.

In the late 1980s, Flame Engineering Inc. designed and marketed decorative patio and pool lights. It added gas fireplace burners to the line. The company now holds patents on a variety of propane and natural gas-fired items it manufactures.

This is not the company's first eternal flame. It built the controls and flame for the Washington, D.C., Holocaust Memorial. Since Sept. 11, it has had an increasing number of orders, Pivonka said.

"Virtually every one is custom-designed," he said.

The NYC Sept. 11 eternal flame sits alongside the giant battered globe that formerly stood at the base of the World Trade Center.

"It's a bittersweet situation," Pivonka said. "We are happy to be a part in honoring those families who lost loved ones and friends."

In New York, Hudson has been back "many times" to view the memorial and meet with people from City Hall.

The site has become a place where people gather, leaving flowers and photos along with their tears, he said.

"A flame captivates people," he said. "For most of us, it is perceived as warmth and safety. There's life there."

Reporter Clara Kilbourn can be reached at or at (620) 694-5700, ext. 321.