Stage collapse at Indiana State Fair Kills Five

State Fair collapse

The collapsed bandstand at the Indiana State Fair. Credit: Matt Kryger, Indy Star

UPDATE: (8/14, 12:30 p.m.) — The death toll is now at five, and the State Police have admitted that many of the injuries are severe enough that it’s not unexpected that the toll could rise. Meanwhile, Roger Edwards, from the Storm Prediction Center, has posted a call to action which I feel needs to be highlighted. It expresses the way I was thinking last night, though I don’t have more than an amateur’s appreciation for the prediction of storms … this all just seemed so preventable:

Large-venue weather disasters are not “acts of God”, they are failures of people. Why? Because the great majority of time, such weather now is predictable. I know this because the great majority of time in the modern era of forecasting, the potential for severe weather in the area is predicted! Yesterday, Indianapolis was in a severe thunderstorm outlook, watch and warning. And yet, the show must go on…really?

The problem is nothing new; as Les Lemon and I noted in nine years ago, covering decades of threat. In presentations nationwide, we have called attention to this matter using dozens of examples. In several expositions in this space, I’ve written about assorted “near disasters” (in Minnesota, Oklahoma, Texas, and Georgia) and the idea of “Atmospheric Terrorism” as a conceptual starting point for motivating and undertaking preparedness. Behind the scenes, we work to educate media and venue organizations, and mostly get friendly and open reception in doing so. Les has been an absolute bulldog about this in terms of gathering people together who could make a difference, and I am sure his efforts and those of others eventually will save lives.

What else? This is damn frustrating, because events like the Indy stage collapse are so preventable. In perusing the website for the fair as of this writing, I find nothing even remotely resembling a severe-weather plan of action…not even any severe-storm shelters marked on the fairgrounds map. Alas, this missing-information phenomenon is nothing new either, in my experience of searching venue websites immediately after they’ve experienced a disaster or nearly one.

The show must go on.

Governor Mitch Daniels, the State Police, and any number of online commentators have blamed the wind for this, saying the gust front (or outflow winds, as Edwards called them) was completely unexpected. But severe weather warnings are given as well in advance of the storm as possible for the very reason that you cannot tell for certain what will happen or when … forecasts are probabilities.

The fact that Indianapolis was under a severe thunderstorm special statement, watch and then a warning, should have led to the outdoor concert being cancelled or postponed.

The crowd should not have been there.

And even at 8:45 p.m. the announcements put the pressure on the fans. If you’re worried about the weather, go seek shelter, but the band’s going to be up in five minutes … do you really want to be the one to not see the show?

It’s not my intent to be insensitive to the grieving of the families, and there’s plenty of blame to go around when it comes to the Fair’s organizers. But these things need to be said so it won’t happen again. And again. And again. As a music critic who attends concerts like this regularly, I question what I would have done as an attendee, and in the end — as a fan and a writer — I hate to say, I would have stayed in my seat until told I had to leave. I wouldn’t want to miss the show over a little rain and wind.

That’s why the venue has the responsibility to make it so. If the weather’s bad, cancel the event to save lives. Better to seem alarmist and protect crowds at an outdoor event than to ignore warnings and have a disaster on your hands.

UPDATE: (8/14, 12:55 a.m.) — A State police spokesman said via WISH TV out of Indianapolis that an evacuation plan was being developed at the time of collapse due to a storm anticipated to hit around 9:15 p.m., but that it was not a “particularly severe event, but rather a gust of wind” which brought the bandstand down. No information is available re: who built the stage or what the structure involved, but such things will be reviewed. The State Fairgrounds will be closed on Sunday, and all scheduled events have been cancelled. Events are expected to resume on Monday, and there will be a public memorial at the Fairgrounds.

UPDATE: (11:05 p.m.) — According to meteorologist Scott Dimmich from Evansville, Indiana’s WEHT-25, the National Weather Service issued a Severe Thunderstorm Warning 16 minutes prior to the stage’s collapse (at least going with the time the Indianapolis Police Chief has quoted when reporting the collapse.) One has to wonder what contingency plans the State Fair planners had in place for such an event — how do you clear thousands of concertgoers to safety in the event of a thunderstorm or tornado warning?

ORIGINAL STORY:  A strong gust front ahead of a storm this evening caused the bandstand at the Indiana State Fair’s Sugarland concert to collapse. According to the Indy Star, the coroner has confirmed four concertgoers have died, and dozens have been injured. The gust front led to the collapse shortly before 9:00 p.m. according to Indy Star reporter David Lindquist, who was in attendance.

This is breaking news, so there are obviously going to be developments in this story over the next few days. It’s almost certain that there will be no more concerts during the remainder of the Fair’s run, which was scheduled to include a Janet Jackson performance on Wednesday, Maroon 5 and Gavin Degraw on Thursday and Lady Antebellum on Friday. But with this not being the first major stage collapse to plague a major outdoor concert this summer, it seems appropriate to wonder what promoters are going to do in the future to prevent this kind of thing from happening.

Had Sugarland been on the stage at the time, they almost certainly would have been killed. Obviously this is going to affect how the band treats similar outdoor situations. Right now our thoughts are with the victims of this tragedy, but when the dust settles it is important that bands and concertgoers alike speak up and make sure those who plan major outdoor events are prepared for weather-related situations, and that the safety of all attending is treated with the utmost importance.

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