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Chicago woman among 5 killed in Indiana State Fair stage collapse

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Updated: November 16, 2011 1:28AM

The woman friends and co-workers called a “fierce advocate” for Chicago’s gay and lesbian community wasn’t one to take time off as a manager at the Howard Brown Health Center.

But she also loved her partner and music, and was excited about a rare weekend getaway to the Indiana State Fair to see a favorite act, Sugarland.

The long awaited trip turned tragic Saturday when Christina Santiago was one of five killed when a blast of wind toppled a stage and its rigging as fans waited for the show to begin. Her partner, Alisha Marie Brennon, was among those seriously hurt in the accident.

Santiago’s co-workers and friends at the HBHC are devastated.

“We’re very, very saddened by the loss of one of our best and brightest stars,” said Jamal M. Edwards, president and CEO of HBHC. “She was a friend to everyone in the community and loved and respected for her work.”

HBHC and Amigas Latinas, a gay and lesbian advocacy group for Latinas, held a vigil at the North Side center’s Sheridan Road Clinic to mourn Santiago and pray for Brennon’s recovery. Friends filtered in, at first whispering and consoling others, but as the vigil began, wails of cries filled the office Santiago had spent the last six years.

Santiago, 29, was instrumental in the development of HBHC’s new women’s health initiative for LBTQ women and had received the center’s 2010 Spirit Award, the highest staff honor. She also was a board member for Amigas Latinas.

Santiago, a native New Yorker, “was a fierce advocate. She was as brilliant as she was beautiful. She was the greatest advocate for equal health care for all,” Edwards said.

She loved her work but she also loved Brennon. The two were one of the first couples to obtain a civil union in Illinois. They were “practically newlyweds,” Edwards said.

Joe Hollendoner, HBHC’s vice president of community health programs, said most at the center were in awe of Santiago and Brennon’s relationship.

“Every day I would come in at 8:30 a.m. and I would see Christina, and Alisha would be dropping her off and giving her the kiss goodbye. And then every day at 5:30 p.m., I walked up to the door and stood and watched Christina get right back into that car,” Hollendoner said. “They just had a partnership that was inspiring. We all pretty much wish we could have that kind of relationship in our lives, and they had it.”

Hollendoner said Brennon was undergoing surgery Sunday evening at an Indiana hospital but was expected to make a slow, yet full recovery.

Santiago, who grew up in New York City, lived with her partner in the Edgewater neighborhood, where neighbors recalled just how close the two were.

“It’s a tragic moment,” said neighbor Todd Taylor. “They’re good people. They had two pets they loved and adored. They were very much in love with each other. For this to happen with them being so young is tragic.”

HBHC plans to establish a memorial fund in Santiago’s honor to support the continuation of the work to which she dedicated her life.

Indiana State Police said Sunday that four people died Saturday when the collapse happened and a fifth person died overnight at a hospital.

In addition to Santiago, the Marion County Coroner’s office identified the victims as: Alina Bigjohny, 23, of Fort Wayne, Ind.; Tammy Vandam, 42, of Wanatah, Ind.; and two Indianapolis residents: Glenn Goodrich, 49, and Nathan Byrd, 51.

The fair was closed Sunday.

Contributing: AP

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