Questions about Indiana stage collapse linger
By TOM LoBIANCO and TOM COYNE Associated Press August 16, 2011 8:34AM
Friends of Alina Bigjohny comfort each other during a memorial service at the Indiana State Fair in Indianapolis, Monday, Aug. 15, 2011. The service was held for those killed in a weekend stage collapse at the fair. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
Updated: August 16, 2011 8:46AM
INDIANAPOLIS — As the Indiana State Fair reopened after a deadly collapse of a concert stage, questions lingered about the structure’s safety, why fans weren’t evacuated as a storm moved in and whether anything could have been done to prevent the tragedy.
State fair officials have not said whether the stage and rigging were inspected before Saturday’s show. Fair spokesman Andy Klotz said initially that the state fire marshal’s office was responsible for inspections, but he backtracked Monday, saying he wasn’t sure whose job it is.
Saturday night’s accident happened when a wind gust estimated at 60 to 70 mph toppled the roof and the metal scaffolding holding lights and other equipment. The stage collapsed onto a crowd of concert-goers awaiting a show by the country group Sugarland.
A spokesman for the Indiana Department of Homeland Security said neither the fire marshal nor Homeland Security officials conduct inspections. And the city does not have the authority to inspect items on state property.
“We do have our own requirements within the city for temporary structures, and we do have our own permitting requirements,” said Kate Johnson, spokeswoman for the Indianapolis Department of Code Enforcement. “But in this situation, we don’t have that authority because it’s state-owned property.”
The fair reopened Monday with a memorial service to honor the victims of the collapse. The fair also canceled two of its top-billed concerts scheduled for the same stage — a Janet Jackson performance on Wednesday and a Lady Antebellum show on Friday.
As they investigate, inspectors for the Indiana Occupational Safety and Health Administration will be looking at the weather and any potential structural or design flaws in the stage, among other things, experts said.
Another emerging issue is whether fair organizers responded quickly enough to forecasts of an approaching storm, especially since a different concert nearby was canceled because of the weather.
Just 15 miles north in the suburb of Fishers, about 6,700 people attending a performance by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra were evacuated Saturday from the Conner Prairie Amphitheater.
Tom Ramsey, the orchestra’s vice president and general manager, said the group reviews information from a private weather company and consults with the National Weather Service, with a goal of giving patrons at least 30 minutes to get to their vehicles if bad weather threatens.
“We saw a storm that contained lightning dip south a little bit. Once we saw that, I made the decision to stop the concert and send everyone to their cars,” he said.
At the fairgrounds, concert-goers and other witnesses said an announcer warned them of impending bad weather, but there were no warnings to clear the area.
Klotz said fair executive director Cindy Hoye and Indiana State Police Capt. Brad Weaver made the decision to evacuate the grandstand within two or three minutes of the bad weather announcement and that they were headed to the stage to order an evacuation when it collapsed.
“The decision was made to make it a mandatory evacuation and we never got to the microphone,” Klotz said.
Hoye narrowly missed being caught in the collapse and credited Weaver with saving her life, Klotz said.
Sugarland tour manager Hellen Rollens decided to hold the band backstage. Manager Gail Gellman said others felt it was safe to go on stage, but Rollens ultimately acted on her intuition.
Fair officials said the stage that collapsed is erected at the start of the fair each year to provide a framework on which performers can add their own lights or other features. The roof can be raised or lowered based on the act.
Saturday’s accident was at least the fourth stage accident since the start of July. Earlier this month, wind blew over a lighting rig at a music festival in Tulsa, Okla., and lightning toppled a stage under assembly near Quebec City. That followed a summer gale that toppled a stage in July at a music festival in Ottawa, Canada, where the band Cheap Trick was performing. Three people were hospitalized.
In 2009, another Canadian storm knocked over a stage in Camrose, Alberta, killing one person and injuring about 75. And that same summer, a stage failed at Quebec City comedy festival.
The owner of the company that installed the rigging in Indianapolis expressed sympathy for the victims’ families. The Associated Press left a telephone message seeking comment from a spokesman for Mid-America Sound Corp. on Monday.
Industry standards do not spell out exactly how concert organizers should react when unexpectedly severe weather hits an outdoor event using a temporary stage, but they do specify that a safety plan should be in place.
“You have to figure out what are you going to do if some extreme weather event comes up and exceeds what you’re designed for? What’s your operational plan? How do you get people out of the way? How do you lower the roof?” said Karl Ruling, the technical standards manager for PLASA, a professional trade association for businesses that install equipment for entertainment venues.
“Obviously this is not how they planned it,” he said. “But how it ended up being wrong, I don’t know.”
Most of the building standards used by the entertainment industry require the development of weather-management plans and set guidelines for whether parts of a stage can be dissembled or broken down.
Ruling said he would prefer the industry adopt the PLASA standards and police itself, but said it would be acceptable if states adopted PLASA standards. He said he’s against states writing their own codes, saying lawmakers can’t do as good a job as those in the business.
The search for answers in Saturday’s accident was almost certain to last for months.
The Indiana Occupational Safety and Health Administration took nearly five months to investigate the death of Declan Sullivan, a University of Notre Dame student who was killed when the hydraulic lift he was using to film football practice was toppled by a 53 mph wind gust.
The Indiana State Fair Foundation said Monday it has set up a State Fair Remembrance Fund to handle donations for the victims of the stage collapse and their families.
Gov. Mitch Daniels said the tragedy has broken the hearts of the state’s residents.
“Our first job is to get back in the business of living, get back in the business of the state fair and back in the business of caring for each other,” he said.
Coyne reported from South Bend, Ind.