Was the steel scaffolding that crushed five people and injured 45 others Saturday at the Indiana State Fairgrounds “a house of cards” structurally, or were other factors to blame?
Those were the questions being asked Monday, as the Indiana Occupational Safety and Health Administration, state fire marshals and others began investigating the deadly accident in earnest.
The structure collapsed on top of the Main Grandstand Stage at 8:49 p.m. Saturday, as some 12,000 fans were awaiting a performance by Sugarland. Winds at the time were gusting up to 70 mph. Multiple videos of the collapse have been posted on YouTube.
|The stage, rigging and scaffolding collapsed Saturday night at the Indianapolis State Fair.|
IOSHA has been working since the accident to identify all of the contractors involved in the project and is not releasing any of the companies’ names until they have been confirmed, a spokeswoman said Monday. Two of the victims were employed by different contractors on site, she said.
The owner of Mid-America Sound Corp., of Greenfield, IN, which installed the rigging, expressed sympathy for the victims and said his company had begun "an independent internal investigation to understand, to the best of our ability, what happened."
Questions on Facebook
Many of the injured, including children, remained hospitalized Monday, some in critical condition.
Meanwhile Monday, as the fair reopened and a memorial service was held, a Facebook page about the accident lit up with memories and questions about who was responsible.
“The outriggers at the base of the towers were too small,” wrote John J. Schroeder. “This was a ten tower structure with five 12 foot box truss sections. You Tube ‘Chopper 8: Aerial view of State Fair stage collapse.’ Freeze at frame 1:37 and you can see that the outriggers that give support, like a tower crane, were too short. The footprint of each tower was not sufficient.”
Concert goer Jennifer Allison Sanford, who was near the stage at the time, wrote that she saw “the wall of dust coming at us” and “heard the steel of the stage cracking.” Her husband “grabbed my hand and ran like hell. We were trampled and bruised pretty good, but better than a lot of the others.”
Police, fair officials and the state governor called the accident unforeseeable. Gov. Mitch Daniels called the collapse a “fluke” and an “unthinkable tragedy.” And a state police sergeant said, "When you're dealing with issues of freak circumstances of weather, I don't know what you can do."
However, National Weather Service officials said they had been in close communication with State Fair officials all day—and had spoken four times between 5:30 and 8 p.m. Saturday.
Some reports said the NWS had predicted winds in the 40 mph range and that the stronger winds had caught fair officials by surprise.
“We were constantly trying to figure out what was coming, when it was coming, and get people to a position of safety as best we could with the information that we had,” a fair spokesperson told CBS News.
Fair officials said none of the calls they had made to the Weather Service had prepared them for the 60 to 70 mph gust “that blew a punishing cloud of dirt, dust and rain down the fairground's main thoroughfare,” the Associated Press reported.
“The massive rigging and lighting system covering the stage tilted forward, then plummeted onto the front of the crowd in a sickening thump.”
But Mike Smith, senior vice president of AccuWeather Enterprise Solutions, told Rolling Stone that the fair had had sufficient advance warning to prevent the tragedy. His company issued a warning for 60 mph winds at 8:23 p.m., while the Weather Service's similar warning arrived 16 minutes later.
“Everyone keeps saying that this was a fluke—that it couldn't have been foreseen,” Smith, author of 2010’s Warnings: The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather, told the magazine. “It was quite foreseeable. The State Fair should have had someone making a call that if a weather warning was issued, the area would have been evacuated immediately.”
Warning, But No Evacuation
Communications were also being studied.
Just moments before the accident, fair officials warned the crowd over the public-address system that stormy weather was likely and advised where to seek shelter in an emergency, but no evacuation was ordered.
The Indianapolis Star reported that state police and fair officials then decided to evacuate the crowd, but that the crowd was told that the show would go on.
Fox News said emergency personnel and fair officials were monitoring the weather “because a severe storm had been expected to hit the area around 9:15 p.m. But the storm hit shortly before 9 p.m.”
‘House of Cards’
Others questioned whether the staging itself had been properly erected, noting that nearby tents and other structures on the grounds had remained intact during the storm.
In an analysis of the integrity of the stage and the winds that took it down, meteorologist and blogger Jim La Due concludes that the stage was “a ‘house of cards’, in other words, a flimsy metal scaffolding frame supporting a huge area of fabric facing the wind.”
He adds: “Certainly it appears this stage couldn’t withstand winds any more than 45 kts (55 mph) and it’s likely the stages that failed this year in Tulsa, OK, Ottawa, ON, and last year in El Reno, OK, also were similarly weak.”
This section of Indiana is known as a tornado alley, news reports said. In April 2006, tornado-force winds hit Indianapolis just after thousands of people left a free outdoor concert by John Mellencamp held as part of the NCAA men's Final Four basketball tournament.
And in May 2004, a tornado touched down south of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, delaying the start of the Indianapolis 500 and forcing a nearly two-hour interruption in the race.
Would codes requiring sounder structures at outdoor public events help? American Meteorological Society Policy Program director Bill Hooke doesn’t think that’s practical.
“Fabrication costs of sturdier facilities might be prohibitive,” Hooke told the Washington Post.” It might take much longer to erect such stronger structures. And such tragedies, though not flukes, are unlikely.
“The live shows are brief in duration, and highly localized. So are the weather extremes. Thus for any given performance, such a catastrophic concurrence of storm and show should be rare. However, given the thousands of such events that occur across the country every year, a disaster somewhere each year is almost inevitable.
Given that outdoor sporting events, live music, and other performances confer such great societal benefit, we don’t want to give them up. That leaves searching for mitigation measures in the social science of communicating risk and warning.”