Monday, August 15, 2011

Could It Have Been Avoided?

The Star's Tim Evans has an excellent story analyzing the events that led up to Saturday night's collapse of the the stage rigging at the Indiana State Fair where thousands were awaiting the start of a Sugarland concert, leaving 5 dead and 45 injured. Perhaps the most damning part of his story is the stark difference in how state fair officials handled an approaching severe thunderstorm with wind gusts topping 70 mph compared to Conner Prairie officials for an outdoor performance by the Indianapolis Symphony. Here's how state fair officials handled weather warnings:

Dan McCarthy, the meteorologist in charge of the National Weather Service office in Indianapolis, said the agency had been tracking the possibility of Saturday night storms since Friday and had been in regular contact with fair officials and police as the storm approached.
He said the agency issued a severe thunderstorm warning for Marion County at 8:39 p.m., with wind gusts as high as 77 mph reported in Plainfield, just west of Indianapolis, as the storm approached the city.
Six minutes later, Bob Richards, programming director for a local country music station, took the stage to issue a statement to fans that State Police say was preliminary.
He told fans that severe weather was moving into the area, but that unless the weather became worse, the show would go on. His announcement included instructions on how and where to seek shelter.

Now contrast state fair officials' handling with those of Conner Prairie officials:

But those same warnings produced a very different reaction at Conner Prairie, about 15 miles northwest of the State Fair.
As about 7,000 fans gathered under the summer sky and waited for the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra to take the stage, an emcee from a local radio station came out and addressed the crowd. Storms were approaching, he said, and the show was being interrupted. Fans were told they should immediately head back to their vehicles.
That warning came at roughly 8:15 p.m. -- 30 minutes before the blast of wind ripped across the fairgrounds.
In an email to The Indianapolis Star, Diane Breier, who attended the ISO concert, described the warning:
"At about 8:15 p.m. the announcer (at Conner Prairie) came back onstage and stated that with the information they had about the weather, they did not think it was safe for the crowd to continue. He asked everyone at that time to return to their cars. No ifs, ands or buts. He stated this repeatedly: 'Please return to your cars now.' "
At Conner Prairie, symphony officials make the call on cancellations after conferring with the weather service and monitoring weather radar, said Simon Crookall, president and CEO.
"We tend to take a pretty cautious approach," he said.
The decision Saturday came after officials learned the storms were packing lightning, with the possibility of hail.
Some left. Most stayed.

Evans says that state investigators will also be reviewing the stage rigging set up by Greenfield's Mid-America Sound Corp., which has been providing the service to the state fair for at least 10 to 15 years according to state fair officials. For now, Gov. Mitch Daniels is blaming a cruel and random act of Mother Nature for the tragedy. A separate story by WRTV indicates that the Department of Labor will investigate why the employer of stagehand Nathan Byrd, who was one of the five victims of Saturday's night's tragedy, failed to report his occupation-related death within 8 hours as required by state law. A memorial service led by Gov. Mitch Daniels will take place this morning at 9:00 a.m.


Concerned Taxpayer said...

Here we go, folks! Let's start the "BLAME GAME."
We have to find somebody to blame so we can SUE them! It certainly can't be the fault of those who saw those ugly skies and stayed right there. No, it's the government's job to take care of them.
Anybody wonder why this country is falling apart?

Bob said...


I understand your viewpoint up to a point...

You can't expect people in the audience to predict the weather, comprehend the structural limitations of the stage, etc.

It does seem reasonable that you could look at the sky and plan your exit strategy.

Rather than focus on the weather and timing of the warnings, I'd be looking at the structure. In particular I'd be looking at its ability to withstand uplift.

The canvas roof and open walls made it susceptible to uplift from the wind. Without any cables to hold it down, the wind can lift it just enough to destabilize it - especially because of all of the weight from the lighting, sound, etc.

Watch the video-- the wind comes and lifts the roof, it wobbles and then falls.

The larger reason to figure this out is to avoid it in the future.

Cato said...

Res ipsa loquitur. Structures don't come crashing down in storms, absent negligence.

This is what you get in a very pro-corporate state with strong defendant protections, strong insurance insulation, light regulation, light inspection, anti-union bias and low recovery limits for the injured. I would be shocked to find that this stage was a union job.

Ordinarily, I despise regulation, but the idea of low regulation is that the courts will force the sloppy to improve their conduct and practices through massive damages awards.

You can't have low damages and low regulation and expect a market to perfect its product.

The Republicans will be expecting the injured to lick their wounds and go home. Shame on the damaged for succumbing to a commercial enticement to attend an event in exchange for cash consideration.

If our courts had any integrity, they'd strike recovery limits as a denial of elementary tort law, due process and equal protection.

Cato said...

CT, absent force majeure, which an ordinary storm is clearly not, there is a duty to make the premises safe for invitees. An invitee is someone whom you have lured to your premises in order to conduct business. Licensees and trespassers are owed progressively lesser duties of care, though you may have "invited" a licensee to your house to watch a Football game.

That is, you cannot blame a shopper for getting hit by your falling ceiling fan. A premises owner has an inescapable duty to make safe.

Maple Syrup Maven said...

A separate story by WRTV indicates that the Department of Labor will investigate why the employer of stagehand Nathan Byrd, who was one of the five victims of Saturday's night's tragedy, failed to report his occupation-related death within 8 hours as required by state law.

What? The company didn't have enough to do on Sunday? Their rigging collapsed, killing people. Cut 'em some slack on the "reporting" issue! (Or maybe the Dept. of Labor doesn't follow the news!)

Indy Student said...

So those 5 basically killed themselves, CT? That's absolutely sickening. If you are an employee or are attending an event (that you pay money for), the organizer/employer should have your best interests, including safety, at heart.

Rick Wilkerson said...

Sadly, some 20/20 hindsight is in order here. I know nothing about portable stage set ups, but this guy does. He thinks the backdrop allowed the wind to destabilize the stage.

Clearly the fair officials were struggling with a go/no-go decision. Anyone who had paid $50 for a ticket would be reluctant to leave, just as the fair was reluctant to cancel such a big revenue generator. I don't think it's a blame game. When people die and are permanently disabled, hard questions have to be asked.

Jeff Cox said...

I think you answered your own question as to why the State Fair did not issue a warning to clear the area earlier: most people would have ignored it, as they did at Conner Prairie. They have seen too many false alarms and cries of "wolf," in part because of the Weather Service's policy on sounding the tornado sirens.

It will sound weird for me, as a lawyer and a litigator at that!) to say this, but I don't know that there was a reasonable way to prevent this accident. The stage canopy was not designed for winds like this. The storm was still relatively far away when the burst of wind hit. This was impossible to predict. Unless you want no outdoor concerts, ever, there is going to be some unavoidable risk.

Based on what I've read and seen, there was just a freak occurrence. Unfortunate and tragic, to be sure, but freakish nonetheless. Likely no body's fault.

Douglass said...

The idea of so many potential lawsuits flying around makes me a little nervous. I hope it all works out in a way that helps the victims and their families recover without destroying the fair, its educational programs like 4H and Marsh Band Day, and a local small business that primarily serves cultural and educational organizations in Central Indiana. This entire thing is a nightmare that I'm sure a lot of people in this city are losing sleep over. I can't even begin to describe the emotions I feel about it, and I wasn't directly involved in any way.

Paul K. Ogden said...

If someone is negligent why would you give them a pass, CT? I agree if there was no negligence involved no lawsuit should be filed. But if negligence is involved and that negligence resulted in a loss of life, why doesn't the family deserve to be compensated?

jojo said...

With all due respect. The safety and weather personnel knew about the 70 mph winds in Plainfield and could easily figure out how long before those same hurricane-type winds would arrive in a heavily populated areas such as the fair grounds as well as Conner Prarie. (were they crossing their fingers the winds would not get real close) Immediate precautions and alarms should have notified the people. We all know how fast bad storms can appear in the summer in Indiana. These people must have some job descriptions of their responsibilities that would require them to err on the side of caution.

Marycatherine Barton said...

All have made excellent well-considered points. Sigh!! How I wish states and counties were not allowed to tax, as President George Washington advised in his farewell address to the nation.

Jeff Cox said...


As I understand it, the winds that knocked down the stage canopy came well before the storm and even before the 70 mph gusts in Plainfield should have arrived.


That is a very real possibility that this is no one's fault. A stage that was not designed to withstand 70 mph winds and was never intended to. A gale-force wind gust that no one predicted or could have predicted. An audience immunized to warnings by their overuse due to litigation brought by - you got it - trial lawyers like me.

Not everything is an issue of negligence or liability.

That is CT's point. Let's just wait and see what the investigation produces.

Gary R. Welsh said...

WRTV's Kara Kenney had an interesting report tonight discussing how temporary structures like the stage rigging at the state fair is not subject to inspection by the state; if it had been on city-owned property, she indicated it would have been subject to inspection. She also spoke to a contractor familiar with the structure who opined that it was not properly erected with cross bracing for the structure that may have helped support the structure better during the strong winds. You can see from the video that the legs supporting the overhead structure buckled when the canopy covering it blew off.

Gary R. Welsh said...

WTHR also had this comment from a civil engineer at Purdue:

Dr. Mark Bowman is a professor of civil engineering at Purdue University's Bowen Laboratory for Structural Safety.

"Lateral bracing is provided in brace-type structures where you'd have physical horizontal braces. Sometimes in a temporary structure like this you might use something like cables that wouldn't be very visible," he said.

Dr. Bowman couldn't tell from looking at images of the scaffolding before the collapse if there were cables present. If there weren't, "it could be important in that unless those towers have enough lateral strength in and of themselves. I assume an engineer looked at this initially and checked that."

Permanent and temporary structures like the one that collapsed Saturday night are designed to withstand winds of 70 mph. That standard is set by regions throughout the country.

Indy4u2c said...


Structures do come down in severe storms! After all, the concert was not planned to take place in a severe storm, was it?

Was there a specification to perform in a severe storm at an outdoor venue? -I guarantee you not!

There were three types of people at that disaster:

1) Those that make things happen - commonly referred to as Independents, Conservatives or TEA-party members.

2) Those that wondered what happened, and blame government for it - commonly referred to as Progressives, Liberals, or Cato.

3) Those that passed out business cards - commonly referred to as Lawyers, attorneys, or affectionately "ambulance chasers".

Indy4u2c said...

P. S. for Cato:

Trees came down in Indianapolis with that storm. That does not happen in what Cato calls an "ordinary storm". One tree fell on Dearborn street, blocks from the Fairgrounds.

For Liberal Cato, here are some average life expectancy for trees: Norway maple 100 years
Red maple 100 years
Silver maple 100 years
Sugar maple 75 years (away from compacted soil)
Horse chestnut 75 years
White birch 30 years
European white birch 30 years
Northern catalpa 75 years
Northern hackberry 100 years
Russian olive 50 years
European beech 125 years
White ash 100 years
Green ash 75 years
Ginkgo 100+ years

Cato, with that life expectancy, it is fair to say that a storm that toppled many trees over the city in addition to that stage was not a "force majeure". (puke...I get sick using Cato's lawyerspeak even to make point to The Liberal One)

Cato said...

Indy4u2c is an example of how whenever we see the little guy getting f****d over, it's usually a Republican on the other side.

Michael Kobrowski said...

A couple of thoughts:
- We have to ask questions and investigate to prevent future tragedies like that.
- People might have to be held accountable or it will happen again.
- In Indiana 70mph winds are not a rare occurrence. Any structure, temporary or not, should be built to withstand that and some more. Even if they would have evacuated everybody early, that stage would have collapsed!

- The Conner Prairie time line is a bit misleading. I was out in the weather (trying to give a walk we ended up cancelling), and had a very close look at the radar. The storm from reached Hamilton Co way before Marion Co, so no wonder CP Symphony would react sooner. Of course, they have a permanent stage there.

- I have been to many concerts in different countries and many outdoors at temporary stages. I don't remember ever seeing such a TALL stage with such thin main supports. Maybe I am just looking at these more

Indy4u2c said...

Note that whenever Cato gets his twisted thought called on the table by true fact that cannot be disputed, Cato turns to ad hominem attacks.

-Poor Cato.

Concerned Taxpayer said...

Thank you, Jeff Cox, for understanding my point.