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Emergency exercise preceded Ind. fair disaster

High winds. Lightning. Hail. A severe thunderstorm warning. A huge crowd waits for country duo Sugarland to take the stage.
/ Source: The Associated Press

High winds. Lightning. Hail. A severe thunderstorm warning. A huge crowd waits for country duo Sugarland to take the stage.

That exact scenario ahead of last summer's deadly stage collapse at the Indiana State Fair was eerily foreshadowed just a month earlier during an emergency exercise that involved the fair's director and numerous city and state officials.

Details of the "table top exercise" were included in a report issued Wednesday by the Indiana Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the first of three independent investigations into the Aug. 13 tragedy that killed seven people and injured 58 others.

While the agency found plenty of blame to go around, it determined director Cindy Hoye and other fair officials were too slow to order an evacuation despite the approaching treacherous weather, which sent the stage roof, lighting and sound equipment plunging into the crowd.

One of the scenarios from the July 12 exercise looked ahead to the night of the Sugarland concert and imagined high winds, lightning and hail sweeping into the fairgrounds around 8 p.m., before the band took the stage. The actual stage collapse happened at 8:49, moments after an announcer warned concertgoers of the advancing storm and gave instructions on what to do in event of an evacuation.

Beverly Wheeler, who was injured when people fell on top of her when she tripped over chairs near the stage, said she was startled to know fair officials had rehearsed for such an accident and still not ordered an evacuation.

"It's disappointing to me if they may have hesitated for the sake of making more money, but I hesitate to judge," said Wheeler, 48. of Ladoga, Ind. "I don't understand the reason for not evacuating people. You sure wish it would have happened differently."

As part of the exercise, it was noted that fans would be told to take shelter in the nearby Blue Ribbon Pavilion and the Pepsi Coliseum, the report said. The show would likely be continued once the storm had passed.

"The fairgrounds staff noted they needed to revise their evacuation and shelter-in-place plans," the OSHA report said.

Bob Dittmer, a spokesman for the Indiana Department of Labor, released a statement Thursday that said the report showed that while fair officials "had done some preparation ... it was insufficient."

Fair officials and the Indianapolis-Marion County Department of Public Safety, which conducted the exercise, didn't immediately return calls seeking comment on Thursday.

John Erickson, a spokesman for the state Department of Homeland Security that took part in the exercise, said the similarity between the scenario and actual events was most likely a coincidence.

"These types of exercises are planned well ahead of what a weather forecast will influence," he said.

National Weather Service records show the possibility of severe was first noted in a hazardous weather outlook released Aug. 11.

According to information archived on the Indianapolis weather service website, meteorologists forecast the possibility of severe weather earlier in the day. Meteorologist Dave Tucek said the service issued a severe thunderstorm warning for Marion County at 8:39 p.m. effective until 9:45 p.m., as a line of storms moved into the city from the west.

IOSHA this week fined the commission $6,300 for failing to conduct proper safety evaluations of its concert venues. It also said the commission had an inadequate emergency plan.

The agency also cited the company that erected the stage rigging and the union whose members worked on the structure for various workplace violations.