INDIANAPOLIS, Indiana — (DMN) – Scaffolding that collapsed during a storm and killed seven people during the Indiana State Fair last year was not up to standard, and the fair’s commission did not have adequate emergency planning in place, according to two investigative reports presented Thursday. “Calculations and in-situ physical testing determined the Jersey barrier ballast (support) system had grossly inadequate capacity to resist both the minimum code-specified wind speed (68 miles per hour) and the actual wind speed that was present at the time of the failure (approximately 59 miles per hour),” according to a report by Thornton Tomasetti Inc., an engineering firm.
The findings were presented by representatives from the firm and officials from Witt Associates, a public safety and crisis management consulting group. The National Weather Service had estimated winds of 60 to 70 mph were raking the area when the incident occurred in August. A massive gust of wind brought down the stage, killing five people and injuring dozens. Two others later died as a result of the collapse. “A big gust of wind came through. You could see a lot of people panicking. All the scaffolding and speakers — all that came crashing down — and the whole stand just collapsed,” said Aaron Richman at the time, who witnessed the collapse.
Sugarland, the country music duo of Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush who were scheduled to perform during the fair, issued a statement Thursday saying that, “In all the back-and-forth between the lawyers, the suggestion’s been made that we’ve somehow been trying to avoid having to answer questions about last summer’s terrible tragedy.” “This is simply not true,” they said. “There is no one who wants to get to the bottom of what happened more than we do, which is why we’re ready, willing, and able to give these depositions today and tomorrow.” They added that they “want all the facts to come out, not only for the sake of all the victims and their loved ones, but also so we can make sure that nothing like this ever happens again.”
Allan Mayer, the group’s spokesman added: “The fact is that Jennifer and Kristian never told anyone not to delay the concert because of the weather. They care deeply about their fans and, as they’ve said, nobody wants to get to the bottom of what happened more than they do.” Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels said his administration “will insist on immediate and complete implementation of the recommendations in this report.” “But it’s also now clear that most, if not all states, have been deficient in this area and have much to learn from this tragedy,” he said in a statement. “We will share freely all these findings and suggestions with any state who will listen, starting later this month at a national meeting in Indianapolis about national safety standards for outdoor temporary stages and structures.”
In February, the Indiana Department of Labor announced penalties totaling $80,800 following a worker safety investigation into the collapse. The largest fines — totaling $63,000 for what the agency said were three “knowing violations” — were levied on Mid-America Sound Corp., which built the stage structure and leased it to the fair. Metal scaffolding supporting the stage lights fell onto a crowd of fans and workers as a storm swept through the Indianapolis fairgrounds on August 13, 2011, right before Sugarland was to perform.
Indiana State Fair stage collapse: What went wrong?
No one took command as a storm approached, emergency plans were inadequate, the communications were ragtag and the construction was shoddy. Oversight of safety standards? Nonexistent. Yet top Indiana State Fair officials in charge at the time of last year’s fatal stage rigging collapse will keep their jobs — despite a pair of scalding reports issued Thursday. With the blessing of Gov. Mitch Daniels, the Indiana State Fair Commission announced that its president and executive director will stay on to run the fair and implement recommendations from two independent firms that investigated the tragedy.
The investigations — one a technical analysis of how the stage went down, the other focused on decision-making — criticized the Fair Commission as unprepared for the Aug. 13 storm that blew down the stage rigging as the band Sugarland prepared to go onstage. The collapse killed seven people and injured 58. The reports paint fair officials as disorganized, misinformed and inattentive to construction of the stage, which investigators said was flimsily constructed. “There was ambiguity of authority and decision-making,” said Charlie Fisher, vice president of Witt Associates, Washington, D.C. “It created uncertainty and confusion.”
Witt and New York City-based Thornton Tomasetti presented the long-anticipated reports at the regular meeting of the Indiana State Fair Commission, the quasi-governmental body in charge of the State Fairgrounds. The investigations cited several critical failures: inadequate emergency planning, indecision and communications breakdowns among those in charge as they tried to decide whether to evacuate the stands while a storm moved in. It also revealed that the rigging and wires that kept the stage upright were too weak to handle not only the 59 mph wind that blew it over but much lighter breezes. Fair officials promised to implement the firms’ recommendations, which include hiring a chief operating officer to oversee public safety. At least one victim of the tragedy said she would prefer to see improvements rather than an extended blame game. “I would feel better if people would just quit pointing fingers and tell exactly the truth of what happened and be honest,” said Lisa Hite, 49, who, with her 8-year-old granddaughter, sustained head injuries.
While much in the report focused on the performance of Executive Director Cindy Hoye, the commission voted to retain her and to hire another executive, who will be in charge of emergency operations. “These reports are really hard for me to read,” said Commission Chairman Andre Lacy. “But this meeting was never intended as a means of placing blame.” Hoye has offered several times to resign, Lacy revealed, but he wouldn’t accept it and urged her to “see it through.” In fact, Lacy said, no fair officials have been disciplined or reprimanded in connection with the tragedy. Hoye now will be responsible for making sure Witt’s recommendations are followed through. The commission also agreed to hire Witt to oversee implementation of its recommendations. “Cindy’s performance from now on will be defined by the actions I am proposing the commissioner to take,” Lacy said.
Lacy refused to say whether he had offered his own resignation, but Daniels’ office agreed that the commission deserved the benefit of the doubt. “Andre Lacy is demonstrating a sense of the kind of accountability, transparency and integrity that should be used to approach problems,” said Jane Jankowski, the governor’s spokeswoman. “The follow-up and implementation of the professionals’ recommendations will be the factor in whether he and his colleagues ought to continue their service.” Jankowski said Hoye is much sought-after and should also keep her job. “The governor said that retaining Cindy is exactly the right decision,” Jankowski said. “We know that there are other states and other organizations that would like to hire Cindy because she is known in the industry as being one of the best in the business. We’re lucky to still have her.”
Hoye, during her brief comments during the Fair Commission meeting, said the collapse haunts her. “Not a night goes by when I don’t replay the events in my head over and over,” she said, adding that she “understands the need for accountability.” “My hope is that these changes in some small way will honor the memories of those we lost and who were injured.” Hoye refused to talk to reporters after the meeting. The reports’ findings run counter to statements made by Daniels, who in the days immediately following the stage collapse called the powerful wind gust that upset the stage a “fluke.” “Well, we know a lot more today than we did back in August 2011, and that’s exactly why we hired the two firms to come in and to do the work that they’ve done,” Jankowski said. “This is the information that we need to move forward.”
In a statement released Thursday, Daniels said, “We’d give anything to have that night over, but occasionally something positive can come out of terrible tragedy, and we have to do all we can to make that happen here.” Daniels said he will insist on “immediate and complete implementation of the recommendations in this report.” “But it’s also now clear that most, if not all, states have been deficient in this area and have much to learn from this tragedy,” he said. “We will share freely all these findings and suggestions with any state who will listen, starting later this month at a national meeting in Indianapolis about national safety standards for outdoor temporary stages and structures. The meeting is being hosted here because of the State Fair accident.”
Among the studies’ recommendations are that the fair develop an emergency plan and follow through with it. “The plans in place were not fully developed, and what they had was not followed,” Fisher said. The Tomasetti probe found that the stage was so poorly built that the concrete anchorsthat secured it started sliding when winds hit 33 mph. The anchors should have been able to withstand winds up to 68 mph, Tomasetti officials said. Even if the four large barriers had stood their ground, the wires connecting them with the stage — and the latches to the stage — would have given way eventually.
Scott Nacheman, a vice president at Tomasetti, said the so-called “Jersey barriers” — familiar to motorists as highway barricades — slid from a couple of inches to 10 feet. He said the blowing of the tarp on top of the stage roof had little impact on the collapse because the stage was already on its way down. “Once gravity had taken over, there was no way the structure was going to support itself, and it ultimately was going to fail,” he said. The ultimate cause of the collapse, Nacheman said, was inadequate lateral support. Fair Commission officials had no idea the stage was so poorly constructed, Nacheman said. One finding concluded that the commission “has no records, documentation, plans, engineering reports or related technical data regarding the ISF structure that is erected at the fairgrounds on an annual basis.”
The Witt report cataloged the moments leading to the collapse and the decision to let the show go on despite several warnings of severe weather. It found that a severe thunderstorm warning at 8:39 p.m., issued after fair officials had been monitoring the weather all day, never got to Hoye because of communications foul-ups. Investigators also found — as others have — that the band Sugarland twice said it opposed postponing the show. As a result, Hoye agreed the band would go on at 8:50 p.m. Witt Vice President Ken Mallette said nobody with the fair quite understood who had final authority to call off a show. “Hoye, in my estimation, thought that the band could make the final call,” Mallette said.
In fact, Hoye stated in an interview with Witt investigators that “the bands had always led, and if the band wanted to go on stage, they went on stage. Nobody is going to tell them what to do.” But after talking to Indiana State PoliceCapt. Brad Weaver, she apparently changed her mind. Minutes before the collapse, she told Weaver “that he had the authority and should make the call,” according to the report. The decision to evacuate came too late, however. “Before they got to make the announcement, the structure collapsed,” Mallette said.
Though Fair Commission officials said assessing blame wasn’t the purpose for the reports, they will be used as ammunition in multiple lawsuits swirling around the tragedy. Don Asher, a spokesman for attorney Kenneth J. Allen, who’s representing several of the victims, said Allen’s law firm already had a good idea of who was responsible for the collapse. “The people that were in control of this performance were the decision-makers,” Asher said. “They had real-time weather, they had Doppler radar, they had all the information to know that a perilous situation was developing and did nothing. The cost of this egregious lack of good judgment took a human toll beyond measure.”
Allen couldn’t be at the meeting because he was in West Virginia to take depositions from Sugarland members Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush. Those depositions are expected to continue today. A statement issued by the band said, “In all the back-and-forth between the lawyers, the suggestion’s been made that we’ve somehow been trying to avoid having to answer questions about last summer’s terrible tragedy. This is simply not true. There is no one who wants to get to the bottom of what happened more than we do, which is why we’re ready, willing and able to give these depositions today and tomorrow. The judge has put limits on what can be discussed, but within those limits, we intend to be as honest and open as we can. “We want all the facts to come out, not only for the sake of all the victims and their loved ones, but also so we can make sure that nothing like this ever happens again.”
The findings from Witt Associates and Thornton Tomasetti didn’t surprise Hite, who is among a group of victims that filed a lawsuit in Marion Superior Court. She said it will be difficult to get closure until the people involved start accepting responsibility. “I really hope that everyone has learned from this tragedy,” she said, “and tries to make some honest changes to make sure that this type of thing doesn’t happen again.” The two firms’ reports echoed many of the conclusions made in an Indiana Occupational Safety and Health Administration report released in February. IOSHA issued $80,000 in fines, citing lack of emergency preparation and a failure to adequately build and inspect the stage rigging.
A spokeswoman for Mid-America Sound Corp., which owned the stage, said the company doesn’t want to comment on Tomasetti’s evaluation of the stage until it has had a chance to read the full report, which is nearly 1,500 pages. “Since the oral report that was delivered (Thursday) is just a portion of the larger report, we all really need to drill down and understand exactly what was behind some of what they were saying,” said Myra Borshoff Cook. But, she said, the company has been in business for 30 years and has lots of experience with setting up stages. “They’ve done hundreds of these events without incident,” she said.
Rep. Ed DeLaney, D-Indianapolis, who supported legislation this year to regulate outdoor stages, said he found the reports “very troubling.” “We were not prepared in terms of our procedures, and obviously there were multiple problems with the stage,” he said. “The wind was not as high as the minimum standard that was supposed to be protected against, and yet this happened.” The legislation was drafted quickly, so the legislature set it up to expire in 2014. DeLaney said the reports will go to committees that will study what went wrong and what provisions should go in a new bill. “We’ve got to find a long-term statute that will help address these issues,” DeLaney said. “This is pretty disturbing.”