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State Fair Memorial offers healing moment

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Hundreds of people came together Monday morning at the Indiana State Fairgrounds to mourn the lost lives and severe injuries experienced Saturday night when the grandstand stage collapsed in high winds.

The ceremony served primarily as a memorial tribute, but also as a medium to channel the outpouring emotion of Hoosiers from all walks of life looking for a vehicle to share their sorrow.

"We hope this tribute will be uplifting to friends and families who so deserve to find meaning in their sudden grief," said State Fair Board President Steve Simmerman.

The audience shared moments of silence for each of the five victims: Tammy Vandam, 42, of Wanatah, Ind.; Glenn Goodrich, 49, of Indianapolis; Alina Bigjohny, 23, of Ft. Wayne; Christina Santiago, 29, of Chicago; and Nathan Byrd, 51, of Indianapolis. An additional moment of silence focused attention on the people still in the hospital. Of the 45 people taken to the hospital Saturday, on Monday an estimated 19 remained.

The moment of silence offered some degree of catharsis to Kayla Sollars of Marion, who sat in the audience with a memorial poster of her friend Alina. Sollars was in the Sugarland audience Saturday night, but did not find out until later that Bigjohny, who had won her ticket to the concert, was present as well.

"I cried when the stage fell," she said. "It was even worse to know I knew someone who was killed. I was really happy they were able to do the moment of silence..."

Others directly touched by the tragedy left the service telling reporters they wished the stands were cleared once officials knew the storm was imminent.

"I just wish when the storm was coming...maybe he would have had a chance," Nate Byrd's brother told a local TV station.

State fair employees and vendors also packed Monday's memorial.

"They, too, are devastated," Simmerman said, noting his hope that the service would allay some anxiety and lift some burdens as they endeavor to carry forward.

For some employees, these personal burdens have been compartmentalized, set off to the side of their mental landscape, while they focus of the enormity of the task at hand.

On Saturday night, for instance, Andy Klotz, the fair's spokesman, spent much of his evening comforting two women who were separated from their husbands during the mayhem, uncertain as to whether they had survived the collapse. Those stories, at least, had a happy outcome, he said. But there's no time for reflection yet.

"It's really difficult," Klotz said. "There are a lot of different things to consider. You have to put your own emotions on hold because you are part of something much bigger."

The search for answers

Most pressing now is the need for leadership, for direction, for answers.

Indiana State Fair Executive Director Cindy Hoye [Photo by Mark Lee]
  • Indiana State Fair Executive Director Cindy Hoye [Photo by Mark Lee]

Much of that responsibility falls on ISF Executive Director Cindy Hoye. Even when operations are running as planned, her job during the fair is all encompassing, demanding around the clock attention. Now she carries the weight of one of the most commonly asked questions: What if? What if officials enacted evacuation plans sooner? Could calamity have been prevented?

Following Monday's memorial she faced a television reporter with weary patience as he asked the same question she'd been attempting to answer since Saturday night, the question that will likely haunt her forever: Why didn't you act sooner?

The accusing tone of the question is amplified as people look to the more swift and decisive response taken earlier that evening at Conner Prairie, where organizers of an Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra performance ordered the audience back to their cars a full half hour before officials at the state fair suggested to the grandstand audience that an evacuation might be necessary.

Hoye and State Police Special Operations Commander Brad Weaver were on their way backstage to ask audience members to evacuate the grandstand when the stage collapsed. Cpt. Weaver pulled Hoye away from the falling wreckage, according to several officials, including Klotz and Gov. Mitch Daniels.

Sunday morning, Daniels joined Hoye and other officials at a press conference to outline the basic details that had been pieced together — a timeline and the names of the deceased.

Following Monday's service, Hoye said that several different engineering firms were moving in for inspections of the collapsed stage, including the Cincinnati-based company that built the stage, a Chicago-based firm contracted by the state fair and another firm hired by the attorney general. Additional investigating agencies include the state fire marshal, the Indiana Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Marion County coroner and the Indiana State Police.

So far, it appears that no state or local inspection agencies were charged with evaluating the stage rigging, underscoring the need to heighten official scrutiny of the structural integrity of temporary stages. According to a Wall Street Journal article published Tuesday, while the state fair accident may be the worst of its kind in history, it is at least the third accident involving outdoor stages this summer. In July, for example, the band Cheap Trick was nearly flattened during a stage collapse at Ottawa's Bluesfest.

Moving forward

Monday's service also marked the ceremonial reopening of the fair, which was closed on Sunday as officials regrouped and plotted their best course of response.

Part of the strategy was to establish the Indiana State Fair Remembrance Fund for the victims and their families. More than a dozen people remain in the hospital. Jenny Haskell, for instance, who attended the show with Alina Bigjohny, is suffering a skull fracture, broken ribs, a crushed pelvis and broken femur, her friends report.

In times of tragedy, First Lady Cheri Daniels told the memorial audience, people can either "lose heart and hope and remain in tragedy or take heart and rebuild."

Gov. Daniels repeatedly praised both first official first responders and private citizens for rushing to the aid of Saturday's victims.

"I can't tell you how proud I am to be the employee of six-and-a-half million people like that," he said. "I bet you share that pride, too."

The memorial audience responded with applause.

Now, Daniels continued, "It's time to get back to business: The business of living. The business of the state fair. The business of caring for each other."

And for the dozens of investigators, it is time to see what lessons can be learned from Saturday's disaster, to determine exactly what happened and try to make sure it never happens again.

So far, it seems, the governor is taking one central lesson to heart.

"I thought it was a learning point for all of us, that something of that size needs some either inspection or certification," Daniels told reporters gathered Tuesday for an announcement that Angie's List will expand in Indianapolis.

"It ought to be looked at."

But the requirement for inspection or certification should not be without qualification, he added.

"We're not going to have an inspector on every three-foot scaffolding all over the state when (they're being) built," Daniels said. "So there'll have to be some rule of reason."

— Megan Banta of the Franklin College Statehouse Bureau contributed to this report.

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