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Debate over weather warnings at Pocono

Brian Mattson and Tom Deacher climbed into their truck and got set to leave saturated Pocono Raceway. That's when the lightning bolt slammed into a tent canopy just a couple of rows away from where they parked, shooting off sparks like a Roman candle.

The NASCAR fans jumped out and found two men on the ground. Deacher and others tried to administer CPR until paramedics arrived.

"When the tent collapsed, I knew it wasn't right," Deacher said.

The lightning strike was one of two that hit the just outside the track Sunday during a confusing and tragic end to a shortened day of racing. One of the bolts killed 41-year-old Brian Zimmerman, and a total of nine others were injured.

A day later, Pocono officials said they warned fans to take cover when the weather turned nasty — even as stock cars continued to race around the track — while some fans insisted there was no warning. Others took to Twitter and Facebook to say the announcements in the grandstands and camping areas to seek refuge in their cars came too late, after the worst of rain hit the track.

"Mother Nature's sneaky," track president Brandon Igdalsky said. "You don't know what she's going to do."

Zimmerman, of nearby Moosic, died as he stood near his car with the back hatch open in the raceway parking, according to the Monroe County coroner. A woman who answered the phone at Zimmerman's home declined comment. Deacher couldn't be sure if Zimmerman was the man he had tried to help.

One of the other injured fans had been listed Sunday night in critical condition but was upgraded to stable, Igdalsky said. The remaining eight people had been treated and released from the hospital.

"The individuals that were affected have spoken to the hospital folks, and they're in good spirits," Igdalsky said. "It's just a freak incident. They said they had a great day and, boom, this happened to us."

Track officials said the crowd of 85,000 was advised several times to take cover Sunday afternoon over public address systems and social media when storms threatened the area near the end of the race. They were checking their logs for details of those announcements.

But some posted on the raceway's Facebook page that they never heard the weather warnings. One fan noted in a Twitter message to The Associated Press that the races are so loud you can't hear people near you, let alone the public address system.

NASCAR spokesman Dave Higdon said Monday that officials are reviewing how the track carried out its emergency procedures. He cautioned against rushing to judgment.

"Anytime something like this happens, we make sure we look at it again and see if there's anything we should have done different," Higdon said. "It's never a good day for us when someone passes and people are hurt."

A severe storm warning was issued for the area at 4:12 p.m. and NASCAR called the race at 4:54 p.m.

Igdalsky will review how many warnings the track issued to fans over that time.

"We're trying to figure out exactly when those (warnings) happened," he said. "Some fans are saying they heard it early. Some are saying they didn't hear it early. So we're going through all our logs and records to see when that went through."

But some wonder if NASCAR should have halted the race if it knew lightning and thunderstorms were approaching, even if the track was still dry.

That responsibility ultimately rests with the tracks, Higdon said.

"They need to ensure the safety of the fans up to our expectations for them," he said. "We need to ensure the safety of the competitors and those who are part of the traveling team that goes to each track."

Higdon said he was confident Pocono officials had taken the appropriate steps.

Chad Philistine, of Reading, who took his mother to the race, said that when the start was delayed because of an earlier storm, they heard an announcement advising fans to take refuge in their cars.

"But the red flag (that stopped the race), I personally didn't hear anything," he said. "I'm pretty sure my mom didn't hear anything."

One bolt hit the grandstand parking area around 5 p.m. Sunday, killing Zimmerman and injuring eight others, Igdalsky said. A second possible strike came around 6:35 p.m., sending a ninth person to the hospital with minor injuries, he said.

Igdalsky expressed sorrow at a news conference Monday afternoon at the track, where a large U.S. flag flew at half-staff.

"Fans are like family to us," Igdalsky said, noting that Zimmerman had been coming to races for several years with his friends. He added that he planned to contact Zimmerman's family and visit other victims.

Communicating incoming weather is often a challenge for officials at tracks throughout the country. Most such facilities — especially the 2.5-mile Pocono Raceway — are massive, with fans spread among grandstand seating and a spacious infield where fans camp and tailgate.

Decisions about proceeding with a race are typically made minute-by-minute, although there have been instances the last several years when NASCAR worked with track officials in advance of incoming bad weather.

The decision to postpone a 2008 race at Richmond was made a day before the scheduled start because Tropical Storm Hanna was moving toward Virginia.

In 2010, all track activity at Talladega Superspeedway was canceled because of extended periods of severe weather. Track officials made the decision based on advice from the Talladega County Emergency Management Agency and the National Weather Service, which warned of potential tornadoes.

And this season, the Daytona 500 was postponed for the first time in its 54-year history.

Such moves create another problem for NASCAR: Fans feel cheated if they don't see a full race, and NASCAR's first priority is usually to try to wait out a storm in order to complete all the scheduled laps.

Ed Klima, director of emergency services at Dover International Speedway in Delaware, said that while "the facility is ultimately responsible for the fans' safety ... it's obviously very difficult to get people to leave if there's still cars going around the racetrack."

He also noted that racetracks are not built like NFL stadiums, which have concourses where fans can gather during inclement weather.

So why not stop the race before a storm hits?

"It's somewhat difficult to pull that trigger 30, 40 minutes out when the weather, in our case a lot of times, breaks up, changes directions, what have you," Klima said.

There have been 20 lightning fatalities nationally so far this year. The deaths have occurred while people were playing soccer, fishing, doing yard work, picking squash or berries, and simply at outdoor gatherings.

"There is simply no safe place outside" when a storm hits, said John Jensenius, a lightning safety specialist with the National Weather Service.

Klima said individual responsibility comes into play.

"People still have to take ownership of their actions," Klima said. "We can clear the grandstands, we can institute our severe weather plan, and then people can still choose not to follow it."

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Associated Press writers Jenna Fryer in London, Kevin Begos in Pittsburgh and Kathy Matheson in Philadelphia contributed to this report.

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Dan Gelston can be followed at http://twitter.com/apgelston

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