After an Indiana State Fair stage collapsed on Saturday, killing five people and injuring more than 40 others, police and fair officials blamed unexpected 60 to 70 mile-per-hour winds that prevented them from taking adequate precautions. "When you're dealing with issues of freak circumstances of weather, I don't know what you can do," says David Bursten, an Indiana State Police first sergeant, who arrived an hour after the tragedy. Mitch Daniels, governor of Indiana, told reporters that the accident was a "fluke."
Staffers for the fair, where country stars Sugarland were scheduled to perform before 12,000 people, had contacted the National Weather Service four times between 5:30 p.m. and 8 p.m., according to reports. They were preparing for far-less-dangerous 40-mile-per-hour winds, and had made announcements suggesting that fans seek shelter. The stronger winds 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.
But Mike Smith, senior vice president of AccuWeather Enterprise Solutions, insists the fair had sufficient advance warning to prevent the tragedy. His company issued a warning for 60-mile-an-hour winds at 8:23 p.m., while the National Weather Service's similar warning arrived 16 minutes later. The Main Grandstand Stage collapsed at 8:49. "Everyone keeps saying that this was a fluke – that it couldn't have been foreseen," says Smith, author of 2010's Warnings: The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather. "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."
The four concertgoers who died at the fair, according to reports, were: Alina Bigjohny, 23, who was about to start a seventh-grade teaching job in Muncie, Indiana; Christina Santiago, a 29-year-old programming manager for the Howard Brown Health Center's Lesbian Community Care Project in Chicago; Tammy Vandam, 42, a mother and homemaker, of Wanatah, Indiana; and Glenn Goodrich, an ESG Security employee and father of two, of Indianapolis. A stagehand, Nathan Byrd, 51, of Indianapolis, had been on top of the rigging when the stage collapsed, and he died Saturday night in the hospital.
"There are no words to process a moment of this magnitude and gravity," Sugarland's Jennifer Nettles said in a statement posted Sunday on the band's website. "There are only prayers for peace in the hearts of the bereft, and prayers of thanksgiving for those who were spared or safe. A piece of our heart is left in that grandstand."
The Indianapolis tragedy was the third outdoor show of the summer in which abrupt, heavy winds destroyed all or part of a stage, prompting questions about whether outdoor shows are safe for bands and fans. During Cheap Trick's July 17th performance at the Cisco Ottawa Bluesfest in Canada, winds whipped up so quickly that the roof fell on the stage, narrowly missing injuries to members of the band and thousands of people in the audience. And on August 7th, 80-mile-per-hour winds in Tulsa, Oklahoma, blew the Flaming Lips' 15-foot video screen off the back of the stage at the Brady Block Party, forcing bassist Michael Ivins to leap out of the way to avoid a catastrophe.
Cheap Trick responded aggressively, blaming the Ottawa stage's builder, Groupe Berger, and canceling a Vancouver date with a stage constructed by the same company. (Groupe Berger, which did not respond to requests for comment, has blamed the weather for the collapse.) "We simply want to know: what are the companies and organizers doing to protect the next act and the next audience?" Dave Frey, the band's manager, said in a statement. The Flaming Lips attributed the Tulsa incident to unavoidable weather issues. "We try to take as much precaution as we can," Ivins says. "You just never know what's going to happen."
Numerous top concert-business sources have assured Rolling Stone in recent weeks that outdoor stages are safe and thoroughly inspected by U.S. officials. "We're really proud of the way we react to safety and situations, and how much we all put into it," Jake Berry, U2's production and technical manager, said a few days before the Indiana tragedy. "For the amount of stage construction, how many miles you cover, how many people go on [the stage], you don't read about many really bad tragedies."
Berry argues it's not possible to completely insulate a concert stage from a freak burst of intense weather, and AccuWeather's Smith agrees. "It's not practical to design a stage to withstand 70-mile-per-hour winds – that may be true," Smith says. "But the solution to that is, you get people out of there before the high winds occur. This is going to happen again and again until people start taking weather-risk mitigation seriously."
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