Preventable Large-Venue Tragedy in Indiana

Going to the fair evokes fun memories for all of us who ever did: teen romance high atop Ferris wheels, the clank of wooden rings bouncing off bottles, the pops of balloons hit by darts, excited screams of kids on roller coasters high overhead, goats baying and cattle mooing in the livestock barns, the taste of a hot corny dog washed down by a cold soda, sticky fingers after cotton candy, persuasive demonstrations of miraculously effective vacuum cleaners and eyeglass defoggers, free samples in the food-and-fiber pavilion, registering to win a vacation to a remote wilderness lodge or tropical island, country and rock bands in concert across the way at the stage…

And now, for thousands of concert-goers at one fair, those memories now include the horrifying sight of fellow concert fans being crushed to death.

Last night, at the Indiana state fairgrounds, outflow winds from approaching thunderstorms toppled a stage rig onto folks gathering for a Sugarland show. Four people died, with over 40 more hurt (local media story…link may be temporary). [EDIT: CNN now reports five killed.] I am profoundly saddened that this happened for many reasons, one of which is because it didn’t need to.

I’ve deliberated whether to show the following video, out of respect for the dead and their families. Yet a little voice inside says, “they would want this shown if it could prevent more folks from suffering the same end”. So here you go (language alert):

If you are a venue manager or event promoter, click “play” again and consider the possibility that nature will call your facility’s name next–and that those people being crushed to death down there are your paying customers, crews, or family and friends. Sobering, I hope…and also, I hope, fodder for action in the form of developing a comprehensive and publicly known preparedness plan that can be kicked into action immediately at all time scales leading up to each and every event.

This clock has been ticking for a long time. It alarmed last night in a deeply troubling way. And it still ticks.

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.

Sometimes it seems as if folks like Les and I, along with Greg Blumberg (a super-sharp OU student who has studied amusement-park readiness), Al Moller (ret. NWS), and others in meteorology and venue preparedness, have been pushing a boulder uphill with the futility of Sisyphus. Awareness and action propagate with glacial pace; meanwhile event after event gets smacked by severe weather amidst seeming disorganization and non-readiness masquerading as “plans”.

Now these incidents are getting deadly. How much more of this must happen? Whether you are an organizer or customer, how prepared is the venue where your next concert, fair, festival or race will be held? What is your own personal, individual severe-storm safety plan for the next such event you’ll attend?


One Response to “Preventable Large-Venue Tragedy in Indiana”

  1. tornado on August 22nd, 2011 10:07 am

    Update (22 Aug 11)…

    Bad news to report: more fatalities from the Indiana event, the toll now up to seven. Also, the lawsuits already have started flying.

    And yet, sadly but truly, it seems to take this extreme of action and reaction to bring about any level of needed change in preparedness. We shall see..

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