Architect Questions 'Flimsy' Construction Of Stage, 'Multiple' Problems

Updated 08/15/11 – 4:04 p.m.

INDIANAPOLIS (CBS) — The death toll stands at five after the stage collapse Saturday night at the Indiana State Fair, and the investigation into how it could have happened is getting underway.

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Concert-goers said opening act Sara Bareilles had finished performing, and the crowd was waiting for Sugarland to take the stage when the storm hit just before 9 p.m.

They said an announcer alerted them that severe weather was possible – and was anticipated at 9:15 p.m. – and gave instructions on what to do if an evacuation was necessary. But the announcer also said concert organizers hoped the show would go on, and many fans stayed put.

But witnesses said dirt, dust, rain and wind came barreling up the fairground’s main thoroughfare minutes later and the stage collapsed.

Meteorologists believe the wind storm might have been what’s known as a “gustnado” — which forms when a strong wind just before a thunderstorm causes the air to circulate like a tornado.

“Typically, they look like a swirling mass of dust and they don’t last very long,” AccuWeather Senior Meterologist Henry Margusity said.

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“Gustnado”s are typically found in open fields and last for seconds. Meterologists came to the possible “gustnado” conclusion after reviewing video of the incident, which they showed a swirl of dust that flew across the stage causing it to collapse.

The gusts of wind that swept through the fairgrounds Saturday night were estimated at 60 to 70 mph – close to hurricane strength.

But as WBBM Newsradio’s Steve Miller reports, a Chicago architect says even gusts that high shouldn’t have been enough to cause the stage to fall.

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“It was horrible,” architect Paul Harding said. “It’s painful for me to watch stuff like that.”

Harding says he has seen still photos and video images of the stage collapse. Besides the human toll, all he can think about is the construction of that stage.

“It was obvious that something grossly went wrong,” he said, “and it wasn’t just one thing that went wrong in the whole process, it was multiple things that went wrong in the process of putting up that open-air assembly structure.”

Harding says he could see no lateral supports, which he says would have been crucial. He called the stage “flimsy.”

Harding adds that outdoor stages are properly built to withstand winds higher than the 70-mile-an-hour gust that hit the state fair.

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“The way that that was done was just completely wrong,” he said. And it’s just mind-boggling that something like that got built and that that happened.”

Dr. Dean Silas of Deerfield was at the fair, and immediately rushed to the infield, along with scores of others he says to help the injured.

“There was debris – speakers, scaffolding all over the pace. People were screaming. The injured were screaming. The spectators were screaming to try and help them,” he said. “Absolute, absolute chaos.”

The Marion County coroner’s office identified the victims as Alina Bigjohny, 23, of Fort Wayne; Christina Santiago, 29, of Chicago; Tammy Vandam, 42, of Wanatah; and two Indianapolis residents: 49-year-old Glenn Goodrich and 51-year-old Nathan Byrd. Byrd died overnight after the accident, while the other victims were killed at the scene.

Santiago was a program manager for the Lesbian Community Care Project at the Howard Brown Health Center, which provides health and services for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community.

More than 100 people came to the health center, 4025 N. Sheridan Rd., to pay tribute to Santiago, Gay Chicago reported. Howard Brown and the Latina lesbian women’s service organization Amigas Latinas – of which Santiago was a board member – are planning a more formal memorial service, the publication reported.

Santiago’s life partner, Alisha Brennon, was injured at the fair and was recovering at a hospital in Indianapolis Monday morning.

Indiana State Police First Sgt. Dave Bursten said on the CBS 2 Morning News Monday that it is too early to speculate about the construction of the stage.

“Keep in mind we’re barely a little over 24 hours since this horrible event occurred,” Bursten said. “It’s going to take – much like an aircraft crash investigation – it will take weeks to analyze, look at everything that’s involved, get input from engineers who have the knowledge on these types of structures.”

Bursten said right now, officials are trying to determine why the wind ripped down the stage, but left carnival rides and many other structures unaffected.

“What we’re really looking at is the uniqueness of the high force of wind that came through right at the grandstand area, affected the stage, and just a couple hundred yards away, we had the entire midway set up with Ferris wheels and other large structures that suffered no damage whatsoever,” he said. “So we had a very unique wind that came through and that upset this stage setting.”

State police warned fairgoers that severe weather was expected, but it came sooner than anticipated, Bursten said. An announcement was made directing fairgoers to the Pepsi Coliseum and the Blue Ribbon Pavilion, and some people had already been heading to those structures before the stage collapse, he said. But the wind gust that took down the stage caught everyone by surprise.

Bursten said the National Weather Service had reported a straightline wind had struck the area, but could not say if a microburst was involved.

Gov. Mitch Daniels also said over the weekend precautions were taken before the storm, but no one could have foreseen such a strong gust focused in one place. Some witnesses have said that while a storm was expected, rain hadn’t begun to fall when the wind sent the stage rigging falling into the crowd of terrified fans.

“This is the finest event of its kind in America, this is the finest one we’ve ever had, and this desperately sad, as far as I can tell fluke event doesn’t change that,” Daniels said.

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