Indiana State Fair tragedy: Can you protect people from Mother Nature?

stage-fair-sugarland

The stage collapse at the Indiana State Fair last weekend, which claimed the lives of five people and injured dozens of others, is the third incident of its kind this summer. Indiana governor Mitch Daniels called the tragedy a “fluke event” that no one could have prevented, the result of a 70 mph gust of wind that ripped through the grounds just before Sugarland was set to take the stage. However, six days earlier, the Flaming Lips avoided near-catastrophe when a sudden storm blew their 15-foot video screen from the back of the stage at Tulsa’s Brady Block Party. And about a month before that, a thunderstorm brought down the entire stage during Cheap Trick’s set at the Ottawa Bluesfest.

The Indiana Occupational Health and Safety Administration and state fire marshal are investigating the State Fair incident, as is the New York-based engineering company Thornton Tomasetti Inc., the same firm that investigated after the September 11 attacks in Manhattan. Until the groups share their findings, it’s too early to tell whether anyone will determine that mistakes were made the night of the collapse. But given the three weather-related accidents this summer, it’s no surprise that there are already calls for additional safety measures at outdoor venues.

Paul Wertheimer, founder of Crowd Management Strategies, a crowd safety consultant service, says the Indiana collapse (“The worst tragedy of its kind in the U.S.”) should encourage officials to change protocol at concerts. Wertheimer points to what he says are inconsistent requirements for pre-show stage inspections, which vary depending on whether the structure is on municipal, state, or federal property, and suggests that new legislation should be introduced to fix the problem. “There needs to be consistent standards,” he says. “Ideally, there’s an emergency evacuation plan that everyone knows about. The venue staff should be trained in implementation of that plan. Emergency decision-making should be prompt.”

Companies that erect outdoor concert stages in Indiana are not required to undergo inspections or obtain permitting at all, an Indiana  Homeland Security Department spokesman tells USA Today, and Indiana State Fair spokesman Andy Klotz tells the paper he’s still trying to determine who, if anyone, is charged with looking at the stage before the event. (Mid-America Sound Corp., the company that provided the stage rigging, is launching its own investigation.)

Wertheimer also believes organizers need to question the “rain or shine mentality.” Dave Tucek, a Meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Indianapolis, says that at 5:57 p.m. CT on Saturday night, almost three hours before the stage came down, a Severe Thunderstorm Advisory was issued that encouraged people in the area to find a safe place indoors. By 8:39 p.m., a Severe Thunderstorm Watch was released. Minutes later, the stage collapsed.

“We’d gotten reports of objects crashing into cars and downed power lines throughout Indianapolis,” Tucek says.

Indiana State Fair organizers say they were aware of the dangerous weather that night and that officials were actually on their way to make an evacuation announcement when the storm hit. “We followed a protocol very directly,” Klotz told CNN. “It was working. This was a freakish act of God and I don’t know how it could have been prevented.”

The storm did cause the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra to evacuate 7,000 people attending their concert at Conner Prairie in Hamilton County, just 13 miles away from the Indiana State Fair. But it seems the gust of wind that took out the Sugarland stage was very local. Dan McCarthy, chief meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Indiana, told the AP that the gust was far stronger than those even in other areas of the fairgrounds that evening.

Amy Bliefnick, the manager of the Illinois State Fair in Springfield, Ill. who just last year canceled a sold-out Lady Antebellum concert due to dangerous weather, says that in the wake of the Indiana disaster, she will review her safety procedures again. “It gives us all reason to double-check the current processes we have to make sure we can hopefully prevent any incident…. Our hearts go out to those in Indiana.”

Likewise, Dave Frey, the manager of Cheap Trick, who endured the aforementioned stage collapse at the Ottowa Blues Festival, says the Indiana incident has artists and managers taking a closer look at their safety precautions as well. “We’ve been taking steps to be a lot more aware of what’s going on in the space,” he says. “When we come into a show in the morning … we have a larger checklist of things we go through than we used to.”

The hope now is that the additional scrutiny that has resulted from Saturday’s horrific event can help save lives in the future. “The only good that might come of [the Indiana collapse] is that asking questions could lead to answers that could possibly lead to solutions,” Wertheimer says.

(Additional reporting by Annie Barrett, Brad Wete, and Kate Ward)

Read more:
Sugarland will hold memorial for five stage collapse victims
Indiana governor calls stage collapse a ‘fluke event’
Sara Bareilles responds to Indiana State Fair collapse
Stage collapse at Sugarland show, kills five

Comments (49 total) Add your comment
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  • Templar

    You can take reasonable precautions, but in the end no. IMO when your time is up, it’s up.

  • Rolo Tomasi

    yeah, that’s it, blame God.

    • Karly

      If someone blames a person they are blaming God’s creation (such as a gust of wind is God’s creation). There should be no blame. No one purposely tried to kill. It was a freak accident. I believe that if God intended for the stage to fall, it would fall.

      • Marianna

        Even under the theory of predestination God still leaves choice in the hands of His creation, humans. We can choose to be responsible or irresponsible, it wasn’t God that chose to cause that stage to collapse, it was the logical consequence of choices. As Mark further down the page states, there is technology and engineering to erect a stage that can withstand hurricane force winds. And by the way, the devil is just as capable as stirring up that freak gust of wind as is God.
        Christmas, I cannot believe I am once again defending Rolo.

      • Eyeroll

        “I believe that if God intended for the stage to fall, it would fall.” “…the devil is just as capable as stirring up that freak gust of wind as is God.” Yawn—do you people have nothing better to do than to attribute an accident due to shoddy engineering to alleged supernatural beings?

      • Nancy

        The problem with these festivals is that they charge a fortune for tickets, and then the tickets are printed on them “Rain or Shine”. Which basically means, this is it, you get one set date(s) to hang out, and even if a tornado hits, you don’t get a refund. It’s sad, but true. It’s been like this for a long time too That is a contributing factor. Now if you go to Las Vegas and see a concert there, and something goes wrong, you can bet they will comp you the entire world for you to be happy.

  • kate

    This was one of the most mature pieces of journalism I’ve ever seen on this site.

    • Cassie

      I agree. Maybe behind the snippy and snarky outward appearances there are real journalists here.

    • steph

      totally agree. I forgot I was on ew !

    • abadstroller

      This article looks like “real journalism”, EW. Kudos.

  • Brooke

    Typo in the article. Severe Thunderstorm Watch was issued in the 5 o’clock hour, Severe Thunderstorm Warning was issued at 8:39.

    • Jamie

      This should be corrected. A watch is way less serious.

      • Bus Driver

        I live in the Midwest. Nobody pays attention to a Severe Thunderstorm Watch. If we did, we would never get outside in the summer.

  • rthomas

    Something similar to this happened back in 2009 in Camrose, Alberta at the Big Valley Jamboree. A storm blew in and the stage buckled and collapsed, killing one and injuring many. I think there needs to be more precautions and measures involved when staging outdoor venues. Some may call it a freak accident, but I think with proper safeguards some of these tragic events can be avoided in the future. My thoughts and prayers go out to all those effected by this and past tragic stage collapsed events.

  • GUEST

    What people aren’t taking into account is that you also have to have some personal accountability. If you see a storm coming, leave! Don’t wait for someone to tell you to leave. As a proud Hoosier, my heart goes out to the victims and families. I’m also proud of those who rushed to help after the tragedy.

    • Paul

      Yeah! It’s THEIR fault they died!

      • The Truth

        If common sense would have prevented it, then yes.

  • Javadude54

    Didn’t Pat Robertson announce that these tragedies were the result of GAWD’s wrath at having too many gays in the audience? No? Don’t worry… he will.

    • Marianna

      Good grief! Is Pat Robertson still even alive? I could have sworn he ascended in a chariot.

  • Mark Jasniewski

    If you are willing to pay, there is the engineering, and tecnology to erect a stage that can withstand hurricane force winds.

    • Summer

      But most aren’t. They just make it as LEGAL & CHEAP as possible

    • Amy

      This is sort of a double-edged sword here – yes, they can erect a much more stable stage for the right price, but that price will get passed onto the consumers, and already, concert-goers complain about the rising prices of concert tickets. At what point do they just get too expensive and then people just stop going?

      • Prince Gulliver The Patriots Patriots

        Ummm…….STFU or strat your own band?

        Do you think it is easy or something to be good in music?

        Sure it’s easy, just about anyone can do it.

        Let’s hear you.

        Didn’t think so.

        Pay the price or please STFU you know nothing.

  • jared

    Sugarland are terrorists and must be brought to justice.

  • Ames

    After every tragedy that is weather related there are always calls that more should’ve been done. I wish people would reach the logicl conclusion that they cannot rely on others to tell them when they are safe or not. Do not wait for tornado sirens — when the sky looks bad, seek shelter. Know what a funnel cloud looks like. This not to say anyone who was hurt or killed in Indiana was to blame, just that incidents like this should remind people in the future that they need to take charge of themselves and their family in order to keep themselves safe. Do not put your life in the hands of strangers just because it is their “job”. Make this your job.

  • Have some compassion

    Having seen he video over and over again-I find it hard to believe that it was just a gust of wind. Several people said they saw a funnel cloud in the area.

  • Richard

    Negligence can kill. Safety at such an event during inclement weather can be expensive. Disappointed fans vs. dead fans? There is no math here. “The show must go on?” No.

  • andrew

    i feel sorry for the ones who got hurt :(!!! it really sucked…

  • Ellie Sue Perkins

    No, but the NWS can.

    What 2 hour notice aint enough that the chit may hit the fan?

    Hey I made a funny.

    Chit hits the fan!
    Literally!
    Bwahahah!

  • KDH

    I’ve seen many outdoor concerts with very similar-looking stage sets. That being said, this one certainly appeared to be top-heavy…especially considering the weight of all the light rigging and speakers hanging from it. The uprights just seemed kinda slender to support all that overhead weight. Very surprised to learn that this is so under-regulated…

    • Me

      I work in this business and can tell you the fellas that have to WORK under these rigs and on them definitely want to be sure they are safe. That being said, these systems usually can hold much much more than they do and the riggers are usually all certified. The issue is the gusts taking the big canvass like a parachute pulling the rig sidewise which it is not meant to withstand. These things work on downward pull. So no the rig was not flimsy at all. But I do expect some changes in side to side and front back reinforcements etc. being implemented in these. This would of course be a larger footprint and cost more to construct, but how much is a life worth. I feel for all the folks that worked on this crew and those that lost their lives.

      • Me

        Just a side note: Checked with a rigging friend. If there was proper rigging (side to side etc. with rails ie. jersey wall type weights with cable at a 45 degree to the top) then it would take a force equal to the weight of the rig and the walls to dump it in any direction. His input was there have been too many in the last few years so something is up but the investigation is still out on this one.

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