Indiana State Fair Death Toll of 5 Could Go Higher After 'Fluke' Storm Fells Stage

Ind. governor says no way to anticipate wind gust as fans awaited Sugarland.

August 14, 2011, 12:51 PM

Aug. 14, 2011— -- Indiana state officials insisted today that no one could have foreseen the rapid change in weather and sudden 70 mph winds that brought the stage at the Indiana State Fair toppling down as 12,000 people waited for a Sugarland concert.

The nightmarish scene Saturday night, when winds of up to 70 mph blew down thousands of pounds of steel scaffolding, wooden beams, lighting, sound and other equipment of an outdoor stage at the state fair, left at least five people dead, officials said.

Roughly 40 others have reportedly been injured, although Indiana State Police have said that number could rise, given that some might have been transported privately for emergency care, rather than in ambulances ordered by rescue workers.

Gov. Mitch Daniels said the wind gust was a "fluke" that no one could have anticipated. Rain had been in the forecast, but not the sudden high winds that damaged the stage.

"It's not clear to me at this stage how anyone could have foreseen a sudden, highly localized blast of wind in one place," Daniels said. "The weather service is very good. They were in constant contact, repeated contact with the folks here at the fairgrounds, and they were right about the arrival of the storm. It came 15 or 20 minutes after the tragedy."

"In Indiana the weather can change from one report to another report and that was the case here," State Police Sgt. Dave Bursten said.

But some of the people who were there said they aren't so sure.

"There should have been warning the storm was coming," one witness said. "You could tell the sky was getting really dark off to the left."

The crowd had been warned that thunderstorms were approaching and that they might have to evacuate. But the same announcer said concert organizers hoped the show would go on, so many stayed put.

Two minutes later, just before 9 p.m., it was too late.

"The funnel cloud came in and all of a sudden it started twirling around and the next thing I knew, I looked over my shoulder and the stand started coming down," witness Jay Keiser said.

The fair was closed today as OSHA and the state fire marshal investigated, looking into how safely that steel scaffolding was constructed.

Daniels and police officials today praised the hundreds of people who rushed to help when the stage at the Indiana State Fair collapsed as a crowd was waiting for a concert by the country duo Sugarland.

While many people fled as the massive structure fell under the force of the winds, hundreds rushed to help the victims, many trying to lift the stage to free people trapped underneath.

"You had law enforcement, you had citizens, you had people jumping into lift pieces of equipment off the injured and the people who were killed in this tragic accident," Bursten said.

The governor said those people exemplify for him the Hoosier spirit.

"The individual Hoosiers who ran to the trouble, not from the trouble, by the hundreds, offering their, in many cases their own professional skills," Daniels said. "It's the character that we associate with our state, people don't have to be paid to do it."

Sugarland singer Jennifer Nettles also referred to the heroism of so many in the crowd in a statement she sent to The Associated Press through her manager.

"I am so moved," she said. "Moved by the grief of those families who lost loved ones. Moved by the pain of those who were injured and the fear of their families. Moved by the great heroism as I watched so many brave Indianapolis fans actually run toward the stage to try and help lift and rescue those injured. Moved by the quickness and organization of the emergency workers who set up the triage and tended to the injured."

Minutes before Sugarland was scheduled to perform, fair officials warned concert-goers that an approaching storm might force their evacuation into a nearby building. They said they expected the show to go on, but the fast-moving storm changed all that.

"We saw the storm clouds building off in the distance but the wind picked up and we saw dust coming across the fair ground and some different things started to blow around," Neil Smith, sitting with his son about 100 feet from the stage, told "Good Morning America" today. "The awning started to blow apart and the stage just came down."

Said Spencer Smith, 15, who was recording the weather on his dad's iPhone: "I've never seen clouds that dark. And the lightening was almost kind of terrifying. I don't know why, I just wanted to remember it."

The fair, which runs through Aug. 21, was immediately shut down but is scheduled to reopen Monday.

"It's a very sad day at the state fair and our hearts are really breaking, so we appreciate all of you giving us a day to regroup, so we are closed today," Indiana State Fair executive director Cindy Hoye said. "We will reopen at 8 a.m. [Monday], but we will start with a very special, public remembrance gathering at 9am on the free stage."

Though some in the crowd faulted fair officials for not immediately clearing out the stands, it's hard to gauge whether the crowd should have been evacuated on the spot, Neil Smith said, crediting officials for their "prudent" forewarning.

He also praised the others in that audience for quickly working to rescue those hit by the fallen stage. Amid the panic, crowds of people worked to lift debris while others created makeshift stretchers out of seat cushions.

Hoye said officials are trying to determine exactly what went wrong to cause the stage rigging to collapse.

"The structure is owned by company called Mid-America," she said. "They are bringing in their engineer out of Tennessee today."

This section of Indiana is known as a tornado alley. In April 2006, tornado-force winds hit Indianapolis just after thousands of people left a free outdoor concert by John Mellencamp held as part of the NCAA men's Final Four basketball tournament.

And in May 2004, a tornado touched down south of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, delaying the start of the Indianapolis 500 and forcing a nearly two-hour interruption in the race.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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