Last Updated: Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Indiana State Fair Tragedy One Year Later: What Happened And What To Do Now
Updated: Monday, August 13, 2012

A moment of remembrance for seven killed and hundreds injured at the Indiana State Fair last year will be observed at the fair today. Photo (editorial): CMS c 2012

Today marks the one-year anniversary of the worst live entertainment concert crowd disaster associated with a stage collapse in U.S. history, possibly worldwide. Crowd Management Strategies was the first to label the disaster as the worst of its type after searching the firm’s unique Crowdsafe® Database that tracks crowd incidents and issues worldwide.

Seven fairgoers were killed and approximately 200 others required medical attention when a concert crowd which included the victims at the Indiana State Fair, near Indianapolis, were not warned of, or evacuated before, severe weather struck the stage in front of the concertgoers waiting for the band Sugarland to perform. A severe weather warning was issued for the fairgrounds around 8:39 PM. Fair officials and public safety agencies had been tracking the developing storm since noon that day.

However, it was not until 8:45 PM that an announcement from the stage, heard by some in the audience, informed the concertgoers that the National Weather Service had forecast a severe weather warning for the immediate area. Nevertheless, concertgoers were not told to evacuate or to take any action. The point of a severe weather warning is to do the opposite: take immediate cover. Approximately 15 miles from the fair, at the Conner Prairie outdoor pavilion, where the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra was performing, the orchestra and venue management did exactly that. The performance was stopped and the audience of 7,000 told to evacuate to their vehicles in advance of a severe weather warning. Back at the fair, however, approximately four minutes after the stage announcement, severe winds reaching speeds of 70 miles per hour (or more), toppled the Hoosier Lottery Grandstand temporary outdoor concert stage onto the unsuspecting crowd of concertgoers in the “Sugar Pit.” Among the dead were a stagehand and a security guard.

Public grief and outrage over the calamity at the Indiana State Fair was amplified as it became clear that the loss of life and injuries were wholly preventable by the very people whose duty it was to protect the public: the Indiana State Fair Commission, Indiana State Fair management, the state fire marshal’s office, the state police and the Indiana Department of Homeland Security. The promoter, band and production company, among others, were also accused of playing a pivotal role in the tragedy.

Arguably, the public agencies given the heavy responsibility for the welfare and safety of the public deserve the greatest legal, if not moral condemnation. After all, when private parties fail to comply, or do the right thing, it is the mission and duty of public safety agencies to force compliance or take more extreme actions. That never happened. Instead, the incompetent and negligent actions of the fair commission and fair management were allowed to get by with a laughable one-page emergency evacuation plan that, among other things, did not even address the public in front of the Hoosier Lottery Grandstand stage. On-site law enforcement and fire officials also had the authority to cancel or delay the Sugarland concert.

Before the gates opened for the 2011 state fair season, no state agency thought it necessary to inspect the integrity of the fair’s concert stage to assure its soundness or verify that the fair’s emergency plan met even the lowest standard of care. All this, and more, became painfully clear to the public when the media began to seek answers to Crowd Management Strategies' 14 questions, posted a day after the Indiana State Fair tragedy. The questions became the roadmap for understanding how the tragedy came to be, how it could have been averted and the primary parties that had roles in the disaster.

Within hours following the disaster, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels began to use his office to persuade the public and media that a “fluke” structural failure caused the carnage.

The Indiana State Fair Commission echoed the governor’s assessment, calling the tragedy an “act of God.” In other words, the Daniels administration and the commission—-all appointees of the governor’s office--had circled the wagons. The Indiana Department of Homeland Security, the state fire marshal, the state police and other agencies remained relatively silent about the tragedy. The entertainment industry took a similar stance, as it routinely does in such situations, by refusing time and again, to answer questions from the media or add insight into events of August 13. Later on, an IOSHA (Indiana Occupational Safety and Health Administration) investigation would show that it had the fair commission’s back.

Thirty key North American media interviews by Crowd Management Strategies’ Paul Wertheimer countered Governor Daniels’ effort to steer attention away from a serious analysis of the crowd safety and emergency evacuation of the disaster. Mr. Wertheimer argued that had the Indiana State Fair had a comprehensive emergency plan, as it should have had, and had decisive management decisions been made and acted on, the Sugarland audience and concert staff near and around the stage, would have, more likely than not, been evacuated before devastating high winds struck. In other words, instead of the worst concert stage crowd tragedy in U.S. history, the collapse of the fair’s outdoor stage would have been relegated to no more than a popular video in the public’s mind.

Governor Daniels--once rumored a contender for Vice President on the Mitt Romney Republican ticket--was forced to change course. His office not only hired a consultant to investigate the structural integrity of the collapsed stage but a consulting firm to look at emergency evacuation procedures in place at the Indiana State Fair on August 13. Both reports pointed a damning finger at the Daniels administration and the public safety agencies under his command. The conclusions of the reports should have inspired the media to ask Governor Daniels and the Indiana State Fair Commission upon what facts did they rely in rushing to their “fluke” and “act of God” excuses so quickly after the disaster?

A year on, the Indiana State Fair now has a reasonably professional emergency plan that addresses what happened on August 13, but not other primary emergency scenarios that could occur in the future. The same can be said for new Indiana stage regulations. But, at least the state organizations must now submit some type of proof that stages were inspected and, hopefully, that event organizers and facility operators have some type of effective emergency plans.

Outside of Indiana, changes have occurred in the way state fairs and other major special events are managed. Nevertheless, there are apparently many managers of events and venues--such as the Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania--that still don’t get it.

The Daniels administration has rushed to settle claims brought against the state by victims of the Indiana State Fair tragedy. It isn’t an act of generosity or an admission of guilt. The settlement of lawsuits with the state means that certain details about the tragedy that would come out in a public trial, such as who knew what when, who made decisions or blocked decisions that could have saved lives, will likely not be known. It is also likely that the Daniels administration had the same goal in mind when the findings of a fourth tragedy report was put on the governor’s desk in May. This time, it was the Indiana Department of Homeland Security’s turn to weigh in with an “after action report.” The contents and conclusions of the report were blocked from public release.

As for other litigation that remains active, those lawsuits are not expected to go to trial. They will all be settled out of court, including the lawsuits against the band Sugarland, which Crowd Management Strategies noted first, had the authority to cancel or postpone their concert before disaster struck. And, there obviously will not be any criminal charges brought against those who allegedly--through gross negligence--failed to protect the public.

There are many lessons to learn from the Indiana State Fair tragedy. For the most part, they are the same lessons learned after every preventable crowd disaster: A lack of comprehensive local, state and national safety laws and standards; an appalling lack of competent event management and staffing; a failure to enforce or comply to safety laws that do exist; and the failure to hold parties criminally responsible for preventable crowd disasters. The continued failure to act on these safety issues means more crowd tragedies will continue to plague the unsuspecting American public.

The current state of crowd safety in America does not have to be the final word. Public demand and political leadership could change the ongoing cycles of preventable crowd disasters that are increasing in frequency.

The way out of the increasing frequency of preventable crowd disasters is by establishing:

- Comprehensive national and local crowd safety laws and standards
- Crowd safety training programs for public safety officials (an unfulfilled recommendation of the landmark 1980 Who concert tragedy task force).
- Licensing requirements for event organizers, promoters, venue operators and event crowd managers.
- Criminal penalties for negligent crowd planning and management.

Today, nearly anybody can be a facility operator, promoter or, in many cases, an event security guard. Most have limited understanding of crowd safety, crowd dynamics or crowd psychology.

What is needed as well, is for the multibillion-dollar live entertainment industry in the U.S. to stop obstructing nascent efforts by the public and public safety agencies to enact crowd safety standards and laws. Decades of industry misinformation, stonewalling and negative political lobbying has helped promote and perpetuate environments that often end in crowd disaster.

Read more News & Views stories (in chronological order) about the Indiana State Fair tragedy:

Indiana State Fair Tragedy story 1
Indiana State Fair Tragedy story 2
Indiana State Fair Tragedy story 3
Indiana State Fair Tragedy story 4
Indiana State Fair Tragedy story 5
Indiana State Fair Tragedy story 6
Indiana State Fair Tragedy story 7
Indiana State Fair Tragedy story 8
Indiana State Fair Tragedy story 9
Indiana State Fair Tragedy story 10
Indiana State Fair Tragedy story 11
Indiana State Fair Tragedy story 12
Indiana State Fair Tragedy story 13
Indiana State Fair Tragedy story 14
Indiana State Fair Tragedy story 15
Indiana State Fair Tragedy story 16
Indiana State Fair Tragedy story 17
Indiana State Fair Tragedy story 18
Indiana State Fair Tragedy story 19
Indiana State Fair Tragedy story 20

Article updated: August 13

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