Reports Cite "Ambiguity of Authority," Rigging Flaws in Staging Collapse

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INDIANAPOLIS — Reports by Witt Associates (Washington, DC) and Thornton Tomasetti (New York) cited “ambiguity of authority” and inadequate wire and concrete anchor reinforcement as key factors in the Aug. 13, 2011 staging collapse at the Indiana State Fair that killed seven and injured 40. Both reports were released April 12. Also last week, Sugarland band members provided private video depositions from West Virginia that appear to contradict the testimony of the fair’s executive director, Cindy Hoye, according to published reports. The state fair’s chairman, Andre Lacy, saying he would rather put a higher priority on a safer future than on assigning blame for past events, has chosen not to accept Hoye's repeated offers to resign from her position.

The report from Witt Associates cited several factors that led to the show not being canceled, key among them the uncertainty and confusion among those in charge. The blame for this deficiency lay in lack of effective emergency planning, indecision and breakdowns in communications among those in charge.

“The plans in place were not fully developed, and what they had was not followed,” stated Charlie Fisher, vice president of Witt Associates, in news reports.

Despite its criticism of the way officials handled the crisis, Lacy noted that no fair officials have been disciplined or reprimanded since the staging collapse. Indiana governor Mitch Daniels has also spoken on both Lacy and Hoye’s behalf.

The report also cited a dearth of information about the stage’s ability to withstand strong winds — “no records, documentation, plans, engineering reports or related technical data,” and a communications gap between Hoye and those who had been monitoring the weather all day, including news of the severe thunderstorm warning issued at 8:39 pm, more than 10 minutes before the stage collapsed.

The Thornton Tomasetti report asserted that, as designed and assembled, the temporary staging structure was unsafe in a high-wind situation. Lashed by the wind, the concrete anchors resembling “Jersey barriers,” which were supposed to secure the four-post structure, could have held it firm in winds up to 68 mph, the consulting firm noted. But those concrete anchors started sliding when wind strength reached 33 mph, and their movement varied from a few inches to 10 feet.

Without that lateral support, “gravity had taken over” and “there was no way the structure was going to support itself,” noted Scott Nacheman, vice president of Thornton Tomasetti, commenting in published reports. Although wind-catching tarps were a contributing factor, the report cited better anchor design as a more important safety factor to consider for future events.

Both reports were commissioned by the Indiana state government, which operates the fair, and Daniels called for the “immediate and complete implementation” of its findings. He also noted that Indiana won’t hesitate to share the reports with others staging similar events to help them learn from the tragedy.

While the investigations corroborated Hoye’s testimony that Sugarland verbally opposed a delay to the show — the band members, who gave private depositions last week, reportedly insisted that they would have delayed the show if asked, directly contradicting those findings — the ambiguity of who was in charge and who should be able to call off the show emerged as a key factor in the tragedy.

The reports quote Hoye as saying, “Nobody is going to tell [Sugarland] what to do.” They also, however, chronicle Hoye’s change of thinking on that point. After talking to Brad Weaver, an Indiana state trooper, the reports quote Hoye as saying “that he had the authority and should make the call.” But before they were able to act on that decision, the staging structure fell.

Event Safety Alliance members will be meeting with Indiana-based and other safety officials to discuss ways that industry members and government officials can work together to improve industry best practices in the interest of life safety. That meeting is set for April 23.

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