Published August 15, 2011
INDIANAPOLIS – Hundreds of friends and relatives gathered at the Indiana State Fairgrounds Monday for a memorial service to honor the five people who died when a strong gust of wind caused a stage to collapse on top of them.
Tearful mourners sobbed as they took their seats for the memorial at the fairground's Free Stage, surrounded by flags fluttering at half-staff. Gov. Mitch Daniels was scheduled to attend the ceremony at the fairground, which was closed for a day following the tragedy.
Wind gusts between 60 and 70 mph toppled the stage where an estimated 12,000 people were waiting to see the country band Sugarland on Saturday night. About four dozen people, some critically injured, were taken to hospitals.
Four of the victims died at the scene: Alina Bigjohny, 23, of Fort Wayne; Christina Santiago, 29, of Chicago; Tammy Vandam, 42, of Wanatah; and 49-year-old Glenn Goodrich of Indianapolis. Nathan Byrd, a 51-year-old stagehand from Indianapolis who was atop the rigging when it fell, died overnight.
Santiago managed programming for the Lesbian Community Care Project at Howard Brown Health Center in Chicago and was named to the Windy City Times' "30 Under 30" list in 2007.
Jamal M. Edwards, the center's president and CEO, said she was one of the organization's "brightest stars" and worked to improve the lives of women, especially those who were lesbian, bisexual and transgender. Santiago attended the concert with her partner, Alisha Brennon, who was severely injured, Edwards said.
Bigjohny had been recently hired to teach seventh grade in Muncie, The Journal Gazette of Fort Wayne reported.
"She was funny, spontaneous. She was just amazing," said Danielle Stoy, who attended Manchester College with Bigjohny. She said Bigjohny attended the concert with another friend, Jennifer Haskell, who also was critically injured.
The fair canceled all activities Sunday as officials began the long process of sorting out what happened and fielded difficult questions about whether the tragedy could have been prevented.
Daniels called the accident an "unthinkable tragedy" and said the wind burst was a "fluke" that no one could have foreseen. Dan McCarthy, chief meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Indiana, said the gust was far stronger than those in other areas of the fairgrounds.
The seemingly capricious nature of the gust was evident Sunday at the fair, where crews placed a blue drape around the grandstand to block the view of the wreckage. A striped tent near the grandstand appeared unscathed, as did an aluminum trailer about 50 yards across from the grandstand. The Ferris wheel on the midway also escaped damage.
First Sgt. Dave Bursten of the Indiana State Police said the lack of damage to structures on the fair's midway or elsewhere supported the weather service's belief that an isolated, significant wind gust caused the rigging to topple.
"All of us know without exception in Indiana the weather can change from one report to another report, and that was the case here," he said.
The stage toppled at 8:49 p.m. Saturday. A timeline released by Indiana State Police shows that fair staff contacted the weather service four times between 5:30 and 8 p.m. At 8 p.m., the weather service said a storm with hail and 40 mph winds was expected to hit the fairgrounds at 9:15 p.m.
Bursten said fair officials had begun preparing in case they needed to evacuate visitors for the impending storm. At 8:30, additional state troopers moved to the grandstand to help in the event of an evacuation, according to the timeline.
Meteorologist John Hendrickson said it's not unusual for strong winds to precede a thunderstorm, and that Saturday's gust might have been channeled through the stage area by buildings on either side of the dirt track where the stage fell, at the bottom of the grandstand.
Fair officials said the Indiana Occupational Health and Safety Administration and state fire marshal's office were investigating. Bursten said the investigation could take months.
The owner of Mid-America Sound Corp., which installed the rigging, expressed sympathy for the families of those killed or injured. Kerry Darrenkamp also said the Greenfield, Ind.-based company had begun "an independent internal investigation to understand, to the best of our ability, what happened."
Mike Zent, of Los Angeles, said the storm instantly transformed what had been a hot, sunny day.
"Just everything turned black. ... It was really cold, it was like winter, because I had been sweating all day. Wind blew over the ATM machine," Zent said.
He and his girlfriend were behind the grandstand when the heard a noise -- the stage collapse. They began running as the wind buffeted them.
"Women were crying. Children were crying. Men were crying," he said.
Dr. Dean Silas, a gastroenterologist from Deerfield, Ill., said it took about five minutes to work his way from the grandstands to the track after the collapse. He saw three bodies covered with plastic when he arrived.
He said it took about 25 minutes for volunteers and emergency workers to remove victims from beneath the rigging and load them onto makeshift stretchers.
"There had to be 75 to 100 people there helping out," he said.
Jennifer Nettles of Sugarland sent a statement to The Associated Press through her marketing manager, saying she watched video of the collapse on the news "in horror."
"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."
Sugarland -- Nettles and Kristian Bush -- canceled their Sunday show at the Iowa State Fair.
Concert-goers and other witnesses said an announcer warned them of impending bad weather but gave conflicting accounts of whether emergency sirens at the fair sounded. Some fair workers said they never heard any warnings.
"It's pathetic. It makes me mad," said groundskeeper Roger Smith. "Those lives could have been saved yesterday."
Fair spokesman Andy Klotz said the damage was so sudden and isolated that he wasn't sure sirens would have done any good.
Indiana is prone to volatile changes in weather. 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.
Daniels stood by the fair and its officials Sunday.
"This is the finest event of its kind in America, this is the finest one we've ever had, and this desperately sad ... fluke event doesn't change that," he said.
Saturday's accident was the worst at the Indiana fairgrounds since a 1963 explosion at the fairgrounds coliseum killed 74 people attending an ice skating show.