Yet More Preventable Large-event Venue Casualties

Sunday brought news that ten race fans were struck by lightning at Pocono Raceway, and one of them has died. This wasn’t the first time NASCAR fans have been hit by lightning at tracks either.

It was preventable.

Early accounts indicate that the man killed was “in or near” his automobile. Metal-skinned vehicles, with doors and windows closed and the occupant not touching wiring or metal, actually are reasonably safe places to seek shelter from lightning. Their metallic cladding conducts the current around occupants like a Faraday cage. It’s possible he was trying to do the right thing, but hadn’t completed the act of taking shelter before the CG hit. I hope we learn more about those circumstances.

As for the broader safety issue at the facility: According to numerous media accounts (caveat emptor), fans were told via Twitter to “seek shelter as severe lightning and heavy winds are in our area.” This brings to mind a few immediate questions:

  1. Shelter where, specifically?
    I hope the venue and event organizers communicated the specifics of shelter to fans more clearly than that.

  2. “Severe lightning and heavy winds” where in our area, and when will they get here?
    This is rather important to know in order to help folks decide on sheltering options.

  3. What about those fans without Twitter, without smart-phones?
    According to AP (via Sports Illustrated), “Public address announcements were made before the storm and the end of the race for fans to take shelter and evacuate the grandstands.” This brings us right back to the first question: shelter where, specifically? And it brings up the next one…

  4. For those without Twitter, where is the printed, venue-specific, storm-sheltering information readily available to fans at Pocono Raceway?
    I’ve never been there; so I’ll have to rely on those more familiar than I am with the facility for that answer.

  5. Where is the venue-specific, storm-safety information online?
    I’ve searched the facility’s web pages high and low, and as of this writing (4 a.m. CST, 6 August 2012), specific storm-sheltering information exists nowhere on the Pocono Raceway website. A logical place for it is in the “VISITOR’S GUIDE” area, in the FAQ subsection. It ain’t there. It ain’t anywhere, as far as I can tell. Have I missed something? It definitely doesn’t appear from a front-page FAN SAFETY menu link, as it should. No storm-sheltering information or weather-safety plan of any sort appears in the Pocono Fan Guide (13 MB PDF) either.

  6. Regarding each of the last few sentences: Why?

Now by asking these totally legitimate questions, I’m not putting all the responsibility on the venue and event organizers. They share it, but so does each and every fan, staffer, crew member and event participant. Yes, individual responsibility is at work here too. Each spectator at the venue should, on his or her own:

  1. Know the weather forecast before going, and decide accordingly whether to attend.
  2. Familiarize oneself with the facility’s weather-safety plan, if it exists.
  3. Upon arrival, or better yet in advance, scout safe areas that are most readily reachable from the seating or camping area, if they exist. Safe areas from severe thunderstorms are sturdy, permanent, covered structures–this does not include tents, campers, RVs, and trailers.
  4. Request from the facility a clearly understandable weather safety plan, if one is not apparent.
  5. Have a way to receive weather watches and warnings, whether or not the facility provides the information it should, and/or in case the power goes out. Have a backup way also.
  6. Know the difference between watches an warnings for each type of weather hazard that can affect the venue.
  7. Understand lightning safety, heat safety and tornado safety as it applies to wherever one may be at any given time.
  8. Decline to attend if it will be unsafe to do so.

More and more, we hear of large-venue weather disasters and casualties. This need not be the case. These incidents are not “Acts of God“, by virtue of the fact that they are predictable. As such, they are preventable!


2 Responses to “Yet More Preventable Large-event Venue Casualties”

  1. tornado on August 9th, 2012 5:40 am

    Comment from Elliot Tardif (thanks so much for this insightful comment, Elliot!):


    I wanted to follow up further with you on the Pocono incident Sunday. From what I’ve read, NWS Mount Holly issued a Severe Thunderstorm Warning at 4:12 PM, and an update later in the hour which specifically stated that the storm would be near Pocono Raceway at 5:05 PM. The track sent out a notice via Twitter at 4:21 PM to the fans indicating the incoming storms. The race continued until the rain started falling, and the race was red-flagged at 4:44 PM, and declared over on or around 4:55 PM. The fatal lightning strike occurred at or around 5:01 PM.

    From all that I’ve read, my personal opinion is that I largely agree with your comments. I would like to add a couple additional comments to what you said. First, I agree with your assertion that the blame does not entirely fall on the track or NASCAR or the fans, but it is shared. NASCAR shares some of this blame as well, because it is their call to end the race (see link), and they didn’t red-flag the race until the rain had started falling, and didn’t formally end it for another 10 minutes (see link). This principle of running until the rain starts falling, as was discussed in the ESPN article as well as an article in is not the best thing to do if you’re trying to get fans to safety but they don’t want to miss any on-track activity (a few do leave, many don’t until Mother Nature tells them to, as I’ve personally witnessed in one case).

    NASCAR says they are evaluating their policies, and I sincerely hope a change in this mindset is one of them. Yes, the ultimate responsibility lies in the hands of each individual (attendee, official, participant etc.) to decide to seek shelter and find a place to seek shelter, and from videos I’ve seen on Youtube (there is a video of the actual lightning strike, sans audio), it’s obvious that some didn’t do a good job of this. But, I believe the sanctioning body needs to be more proactive in order to foster a more proactive environment amongst fans, and I hope they are in the wake of this. And, as you pointed out in your blog post, the track itself should be more proactive with having designated places of shelter advertised in signage and other fixed means.

    I bought a program for each event I attended at Pocono (1 in 2003, 2 in 2004 and 1 in 2005); I pulled them out of my bookcase and flipped through a couple of them this evening and I didn’t see anything in them about specific shelter points for adverse or severe weather, and a program would be a perfect place for them. Individual tracks are looking at their policies per ESPN/Thatsracin, and I hope they are more open and transparent about these policies with their guests in the wake of this (note in the Thatsracin article, Pocono officials wouldn’t disclose what their emergency plan is, but promised a report to be released later).

    To end this letter on a positive note, I found an example of a severe weather plan put into action just this past weekend, at the Lollapalooza festival in Chicago. Some spectators weren’t happy about evacuating, but there were no reported injuries mentioned in this article, and even some spectators theorized the events in Indiana had a lot to do with this evacuation. Please see this article.

  2. tornado on August 14th, 2012 7:39 am

    More from Elliot:

    Since I wrote you last night, I came across another good article (and video) on the situation here.

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