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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)