RS Scalpers



Who's to Blame in Deadly Stage Collapse Tragedies?

12 die, dozens injured as disasters strike shows in Indiana and Belgium

Rolling Stone

September 15, 2011

By Steve Knopper

At 8:26 p.m. on Saturday, August 13th, Nathan Byrd called his girlfriend. The veteran Indianapolis stagehand was perched in a bucket seat at the top of a nearly 40-foot lighting rig at the Indiana State Fair grandstand, waiting for country duo Sugarland to take the stage. The 51-year-old looked up as ominous black clouds gathered in the sky and told his girlfriend nervously, "I hope this wind don't blow me off."

Then, about 20 minutes later, as 12,000 fans watched in horror, 60-to-70-mile-an-hour winds tore the massive stage to the ground. Fans in the "Sugarpit" near the front took the brunt of the damage. Four were killed instantly. Three died later, including Byrd, who sustained head injuries, a punctured lung and broken bones in his legs. Forty-five more suffered injuries, from fractured skulls and broken necks to shattered bones and third-degree burns.

Unbelievably, five days later, as family members gathered for funerals in Indiana and investigators were beginning to sift through the wreckage, a similar disaster hit the Pukkelpop Festival -- featuring Eminem, Foo Fighters and around 200 other acts -- in Kiewit, Belgium. Rain, wind and marble-size hail pummeled the sprawling grounds, destroying three separate stages, uprooting trees, knocking over lighting poles, ripping open tents and pushing a 15-foot video screen onto the audience. Five died and more than 140 were injured as 60,000 fans frantically sought shelter. "It was insane," says Fleet Foxes leader Robin Pecknold, who was in his band's backstage trailer when the storm hit. "There was scaffolding knocked over everywhere. People had to crawl through the scaffolding to get out of this one area. I saw two stages that had totally been destroyed. There were bodies on stretchers and police cars everywhere. It was just this madhouse."

In Indiana, after a long day of blue skies and 95-degree heat, Sugarland fans were stunned to see the huge blue canopy above the stage flapping angrily in the wind. Suddenly, the narrow side towers buckled, and the rest of the stage came down in a terrifying instant. "[The tarp] acted like a sail," recalls Bill Bittner, a Dayton, Ohio, fire department lieutenant who was in the audience with his two teen daughters. "The whole thing just rocked to the right, and then it started coming forward, and it just landed on all those people."

Instantly, the Indiana State Fair and the Pukkelpop Festival joined the black list of concert tragedies: the Rolling Stones at Altamont in 1970, the Who in Cincinnati in 1979, Pearl Jam in Denmark in 2000 and the Great White Rhode Island nightclub fire of 2003.

But could the deaths have been averted? Pukkelpop, shockingly, was the fourth stage collapse this summer: On July 17th, Cheap Trick observed high winds at the Cisco Ottawa Bluesfest and decided not to perform. The stage imploded, hospitalizing three people. Then, on August 7th, the Flaming Lips were about to play the Brady Block Party in Tulsa, Oklahoma, when 80-mph winds blew the band's 15-foot video screen off the back of the stage, forcing bassist Michael Ivins to jump out of the way to avoid a catastrophe. After the Cheap Trick incident, Dave Frey, the band's manager, released a statement that proved prophetic — "We simply want to know: What are the companies and organizers doing to protect the next act and the next audience?"

Not enough: The tragedies reveal an absurdly inadequate system for inspecting U.S. concert stages and evacuating large crowds in the case of intense weather. Although Indiana fair officials have not divulged whether the stage was inspected, it turns out an official inspection was not even required. Indiana Department of Homeland Security officials oversee buildings, amusement-park rides and elevators, but not scaffolding or entertainment stages. "There is no one state agency or governing body that has jurisdiction to inspect temporary structures like that," says Andy Klotz, the fair's spokesman. "The state fire marshal comes in and inspects the other things on the stage -- they check the electrical -- but they apparently do not have jurisdiction on the rigging and the roof structure itself."

In January 2009, Bill Gorlin, vice president of the entertainment division at the McLaren Engineering Group, which has worked with the Rolling Stones, U2 and Roger Waters on recent tours, wrote an article for Structure magazine titled "Temporary Structures Need Wind-Load Standards." "There's a lack of consistency around the country," he says. "[The tragedy] is a reminder that we could do better, and continue to encourage the industry to be aware of proper standards."

"These staging companies need to be more closely regulated," adds Sean Curtin, senior vice president of HCC Specialty, a Wakefield, Massachusetts, insurance company specializing in large concerts. "These things haven't happened in the past because they've been lucky, as much as anything else."

Regulations differ all over the country, and the Indiana Fair's were comparatively lax. Bonnaroo requires engineers to approve its sound and lighting equipment, and the Texas State Fair calibrates its stage to withstand 68-mile-an-hour winds and cancels all concerts when winds reach even 40 mph. State Fair officials and Indiana's governor, Mitch Daniels, have attributed the disaster to a "fluke" of unexpected weather, and have hired two prominent engineering companies to investigate what might have caused the deadly collapse. (In Belgium, officials for Pukkelpop and the nearby city of Hasselt have declared that neither the city nor the festival could have prepared for such an abrupt, intense storm.)

But as more facts trickle out from Indianapolis, the fluke-weather explanation seems increasingly dubious. The fair's severe-weather plan took up just one page, with nine bullet points, and contained no specifics about evacuating crowds in an emergency. Even as the clouds turned black and sand began flying into fairgoers' faces, officials announced what seemed to be an optional evacuation. "They said, 'We're watching the National Weather Service,' and they said where to evacuate," says firefighter Bittner. "They didn't say to evacuate."

Fair officials also had plenty of notice about the storm: AccuWeather issued warnings of 60-mph winds more Then 25 minutes before the incident. "It was quite foreseeable," says Mike Smith, a meteorologist and CEO of weather-data services at AccuWeather Enterprise Solutions. "It's not practical to design a stage to withstand 70-mile-per-hour winds -- that may be true. But the solution is, you get people out of there before the high winds occur."

The four collapses have galvanized artists and managers into being more aggressive about ensuring safety at large outdoor events. "Up until now, when the rain would come in, I would say, 'This show's going to be great! People are going to go nuts!'" says Tim Mcllrath, frontman for Rise Against, who were about to perform at Pukkelpop when the storm hit, forcing the band to take cover inside its trailer. "Now our tour manager says, 'If it gets sketchy out there, I'm calling it -- so don't be shocked if I say get the fuck off the stage.'"

At Pukkelpop, the heavy rains initially delighted hot concertgoers, but the weather quickly turned violent. Chicago indie-rock band Smith Westerns had just started their set when the stage began shaking; frontman Cullen Omori heeded his manager's shouted instruction to run away. Panic! at the Disco were about to go on when the winds hit, forcing drummer Spencer Smith to frantically take flight, finding shelter behind a van, then a truck. "It was the weirdest feeling, not feeling like there was even a place you could run to, just to be safe," he says. "Afterward, my hands were beyond numb. I couldn't move them, they were so tensed up. I couldn't clench them. I couldn't make a fist."

In Indiana five days after the tragedy, workers had yet to clear the wreckage out of the grandstand area. Huge lighting rigs sat askew on top of Vox speakers and dented cabinets, and the band's trucks -- emblazoned with the country act's name -- still had loading ramps connected to open rear doors.

Sugarland continued their tour five days after the fair, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, albeit with minimal stage production, since much of their equipment was destroyed or left behind. "While music cannot change the events and losses at the Indiana State Fair, it can hopefully serve as a ritual and a balm to provide comfort and facilitate healing in this time of great sorrow," the band said in a statement on its website. (The group declined requests for further comment.)

Music was a way of life for many of the fans and workers who died at the state fair. Alina BigJohny, 23, was a country-music fanatic, hitting Kenny Chesney shows as she traveled the country before starting a seventh-grade teaching job this fall. Security guard Glen Goodrich, 49, was a father of two and a concert-industry veteran who once worked an Indianapolis Sting show and found himself playing chess with the star. Byrd, the stagehand, spent 20 years performing every possible backstage job at local shows, working with acts from Jimmy Buffett and Guns n' Roses to Metallica. He once ran cable for the Rolling Stones, one of his favorite acts, shadowing Mick Jagger so the singer wouldn't trip in the days before wireless microphones. "A lot of bands wanted him to go on tour with them," says Byrd's 16-year-old son, Trevor, at an Indianapolis funeral home that drew 600 mourners. "But he wanted to raise us kids.”

The Byrd family hasn't ruled out legal action: Marilyn Barfield, Byrd's sister, believes the fair's "fluke" explanation is inadequate — the experienced stagehand, who could descend from his lighting perch in just 30 seconds, needed little warning. "Our main concern is the kids have money to get to college," she says. "Other than that, we're not bloodsuckers." Adds his girlfriend, Laura Harper, "I just know I want my Nate back."