Indiana State Fair reopens; hundreds honor 5 killed in stage collapse
By TOM LoBIANCO Associated Press August 15, 2011 7:26AM
Candles are left at a makeshift memorial for Alina Bigjohny at her mother's home in Fort Wayne, Ind, Sunday, Aug, 14, 2011. Bigjohny, 23, was killed Saturday night in the stage collapse at the Indiana State Fair. (AP Photo/The Journal Gazette, Samuel Hoffman)
Updated: August 15, 2011 11:24AM
INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels told hundreds of people who gathered Monday for a service to remember five people killed when a stage collapsed at the Indiana State Fair that the tragedy has broken the hearts of the state’s residents.
Daniels said Saturday’s stage collapse as high winds raked the fairgrounds was especially tragic because the state fair is “a family reunion of all Hoosiers,” where farmers and city residents gather for fun.
Many of the people at the service wept and hugged each other as they sat on picnic benches for the service held under partly sunny skies.
Daniels became emotional as he praised the people who rushed to the stage to help the injured. “There was a hero every 10 feet on Saturday night,” he said.
“I cannot tell you how proud I am,” Daniels said, his voice cracking, “to be the employee of six and half million people like that.”
Wind gusts between 60 and 70 mph toppled the stage where an estimated 12,000 people were waiting to see the country band Sugarland on Saturday night. About four dozen people, some critically injured, were taken to hospitals.
As the service drew to a close, five youths lined up in front of the stage holding bouquets of flowers in honor of the dead as the victim’s names were read aloud.
“Our hearts are broken for those that we have lost, for those we mourn,” the governor said. “But our hearts are broken likewise for those who work so very hard for a full year to try to make the Indiana state fair the great event that it is.”
Indiana’s first lady Cheri Daniels, who presides over fair events each year, said there are two options when tragedy strikes: to give up or rebuild.
“We have decided that we want to take heart and rebuild,” she said, as the state fair reopened following a one-day closure.
Daniels ordered flags at the fairgrounds flown at half-staff in honor of the victims.
Four of the victims died at the scene: Alina Bigjohny, 23, of Fort Wayne; Christina Santiago, 29, of Chicago; Tammy Vandam, 42, of Wanatah; and 49-year-old Glenn Goodrich of Indianapolis. Nathan Byrd, a 51-year-old stagehand from Indianapolis who was atop the rigging when it fell, died overnight.
Santiago managed programming for the Lesbian Community Care Project at Howard Brown Health Center in Chicago and was named to the Windy City Times’ “30 Under 30” list in 2007.
Jamal M. Edwards, the center’s president and CEO, said she was one of the organization’s “brightest stars” and worked to improve the lives of women, especially those who were lesbian, bisexual and transgender. Santiago attended the concert with her partner, Alisha Brennon, who was severely injured, Edwards said.
Bigjohny had been recently hired to teach seventh grade in Muncie, The Journal Gazette of Fort Wayne reported.
“She was funny, spontaneous. She was just amazing,” said Danielle Stoy, who attended Manchester College with Bigjohny. She said Bigjohny attended the concert with another friend, Jennifer Haskell, who also was critically injured.
Daniels has called the accident an “unthinkable tragedy” and said the wind burst was a “fluke” that no one could have foreseen. Dan McCarthy, chief meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Indiana, said the gust was far stronger than those in other areas of the fairgrounds.
The seemingly capricious nature of the gust was evident Sunday at the fair, where crews placed a blue drape around the grandstand to block the view of the wreckage. A striped tent near the grandstand appeared unscathed, as did an aluminum trailer about 50 yards across from the grandstand. The Ferris wheel on the midway also escaped damage.
First Sgt. Dave Bursten of the Indiana State Police said the lack of damage to structures on the fair’s midway or elsewhere supported the weather service’s belief that an isolated, significant wind gust caused the rigging to topple.
“All of us know without exception in Indiana the weather can change from one report to another report, and that was the case here,” he said.
Bursten said fair officials had begun preparing in case they needed to evacuate visitors for the impending storm. Additional state troopers had been moved to the grandstand to help in the event of an evacuation, according to the Indiana State Police.
Concert-goers and other witnesses said an announcer warned them of impending bad weather but gave conflicting accounts of whether emergency sirens at the fair sounded.
Meteorologist John Hendrickson said it’s not unusual for strong winds to precede a thunderstorm, and that Saturday’s gust might have been channeled through the stage area by buildings on either side of the dirt track where the stage fell, at the bottom of the grandstand.
Fair officials said the Indiana Occupational Health and Safety Administration and state fire marshal’s office were investigating. Bursten said the investigation could take months.
The owner of Mid-America Sound Corp., which installed the rigging, expressed sympathy for the families of those killed or injured. Kerry Darrenkamp also said the Greenfield, Ind.-based company had begun “an independent internal investigation to understand, to the best of our ability, what happened.”
Mike Zent, of Los Angeles, said the storm instantly transformed what had been a hot, sunny day.
“Just everything turned black. ... It was really cold, it was like winter, because I had been sweating all day. Wind blew over the ATM machine,” Zent said.
He and his girlfriend were behind the grandstand when the heard a noise — the stage collapse. They began running as the wind buffeted them.
“Women were crying. Children were crying. Men were crying,” he said.
Jennifer Nettles of Sugarland sent a statement to The Associated Press through her marketing manager, saying she watched video of the collapse on the news “in horror.”
“I am so moved,” she said. “Moved by the grief of those families who lost loved ones. Moved by the pain of those who were injured and the fear of their families. Moved by the great heroism as I watched so many brave Indianapolis fans actually run toward the stage to try and help lift and rescue those injured. Moved by the quickness and organization of the emergency workers who set up the triage and tended to the injured.”
Sugarland — Nettles and Kristian Bush — canceled their Sunday show at the Iowa State Fair.
Indiana is prone to abrupt changes in weather. In April 2006, tornado-force winds hit Indianapolis just after thousands of people left a free outdoor concert by John Mellencamp held as part of the NCAA men’s Final Four basketball tournament. And in May 2004, a tornado touched down south of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, delaying the start of the Indianapolis 500 and forcing a nearly two-hour interruption in the race.
Saturday’s accident was the worst at the Indiana fairgrounds since a 1963 explosion at the fairgrounds coliseum killed 74 people attending an ice skating show.