Sunday, August 14, 2011

Tragic Stage Collapse At Indiana State Fair

The dramatic video above shows the stage collapse that took place just before 9pm EDT yesterday evening (see report below) at the Indiana State Fair.  As of this writing, 5 people have reportedly been killed, with over 45 injured.  A truly tragic event by any standard.

A Severe Thunderstorm Warning had been issued by the local National Weather Service (NWS) office in Indianapolis at 8:39 PM EDT.  I've copied and pasted the text of the original warning below, and highlighted the portion referencing damaging winds in excess of 60 mph being possible with the storm:

The Indiana State Fairgrounds are located in Indianapolis, which is in Marion County.  I found it interesting that the original NWS warning product did not even mention the estimated time of arrival to the Fairgrounds, particularly in light of the fact that the State Fair was an ongoing event in which there were a large number of people outdoors.

In the first update that followed the original warning issuance, the damaging wind potential was increased to 70 mph and the Fairgrounds were finally mentioned (see highlighted portions below):

I'm sure you've noticed the problem by now.  The update, issued at 8:58 PM EDT, gave an estimated time of arrival to the fairgrounds of 9:20 PM EDT.  According to the police chief, the stage collapsed at 8:55 PM, some 20+ minutes before the time of impact estimate that was given in the updated statement.  (In fact, it appears that the damage was literally being done at or near the very moment the update was being issued at 8:58 PM EDT).

The "time problem" was alluded to in a statement that the Governor of Indiana made at a news conference yesterday evening.  I have cut and pasted his comment from an article posted on the Indystar below, and highlighted the time reference:

There's no question that the lack of a call to action for the Fairgrounds in the original warning and the way-off time of arrival estimate given for the Fairgrounds in the next update were horrible, however I have a hard time agreeing with the Governor when he says that he "stands by the Fair's preparedness measures".  They, too, seemed to be lackluster.  If you read further down in the same article you'll see this revelation regarding the "prepardness measures" at the Fairgrounds yesterday evening:

On his smartphone?  Really, the Special Operations Commander and fair Executive Director were monitoring the potential for incoming severe weather on a smartphone?  I'm sure many of the fans out in the crowd were as well, but most of them weren't expecting to make a life or death decision on it.

This comes back to a point that I've tried to make many times on this blog.  When it comes to severe weather safety and preparedness at a major public event, the organizers and/or managers of such an event need to leave it to a professional to monitor the weather for them - not a layman watching the weather on a smartphone (or even on a computer via the internet for that matter).  

One (like the Governor) would argue that they did, to some extent, leave it to the professionals (referring to the NWS) but they were given some bad information with respect to the estimated time of arrival.  Perhaps if the Fairgrounds had been referenced in the original NWS warning issued at 8:39 PM the organizers would have taken some action earlier and avoided this tragedy - but we will never know whether that would have happened or not...

I mentioned early on in this posting that the NWS usually keeps up with major public events like a State Fair in order to keep an extra "eye out" with respect to public safety.  With that said, the NWS is not mandated to give site-specific warnings for individual commercial events or entities (Fairs included).  It is my opinion, and unfortunately well illustrated by this tragic event, that organizers should not try and take on this enormous responsibility themselves, but rather hire a professional, private sector meteorologist to monitor the event for them.

Until this issue is taken seriously, I'm afraid this won't be the last weather related tragedy that we read about at what should have otherwise been a fun, family event.

Our thoughts and prayers certainly go out to those victims of last night's tragedy, as well as those who are recovering.

**Update 12:40 PM CDT:  I have just made a separate post regarding the radar imagery associated with this event.  You can view that post here.

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Anonymous said...

Where would they go if they get a warning? Is there a shelter there?

Rob In Texas said...

Anonymous, thanks for the comment. According to the State Fair's website, there are several substantial structures on the Fairgrounds in which outdoor spectators could have sought shelter:

While a substantial structure is obviously the best choice in which to seek shelter, if you are ever caught outdoors in a tent, beneath a canopy or other weak awning, or any other "fast up, fast down" type structure and a thunderstorm with strong winds is approaching, it would be better to get out of that structure and seek shelter in your vehicle rather than try and ride it out inside such a poorly supported venue.

Tornadoes are obviously an entirely different matter; I am talking about strong, gusty winds of the type that we saw in this tragic case...

Anonymous said...

looks to me like they should've sounded the sirens like they used to. maybe somebody would have done something then!!!!!

Chuck C. - Indianapolis

Rob In Texas said...


Thanks for the comment. I'm assuming that you're referring to the fact that very recently the Marion Co., Indiana Department of Emergency Management decided to only sound tornado sirens for tornado warnings. I actually made a post about this back on July 5th. The link is here:

For many years the agency, which activates the sirens for the city of Indianapolis, would do so even in a severe thunderstorm warning when the area was under a Tornado Watch at the same time.

Indianapolis wasn't under a Tornado Watch yesterday (it was a Severe Thunderstorm Watch that was issued by the SPC nearly 3 hours before the event took place).

So, the way I understand the prior policy on tornado sirens in Marion County, they would not have been sounded yesterday because a Tornado Watch was not also in effect at the same time...

With that said, I stand by my long time assertion on this blog that it's bad policy to sound tornado warning sirens in any situation other than one that involves a Tornado Warning. The false alarm rate/cry wolf syndrome gets way too high otherwise...

Anonymous said...

"In Marion County, the sirens are sounded for not only tornado warnings... It can also mean a non-weather related, widespread emergency like a chemical spill, or that the county is just conducting their weekly Friday test."

The sirens are not just for tornadoes.

Rob In Texas said...

Anonymous/sirens, thanks for the comment. You are correct in that the sirens can also be utilized for other civil emergencies (depending on the rules in a given city or county). I only referred to tornado warnings vs. severe thunderstorm warnings in this case because that is what we were dealing with in the context of this post...

You should be able to Google the Office of Emergency Management (or similar title) for your area and determine what types of situations they will sound the sirens for. You should also always keep in mind that these devices were designed primarily for outdoor use and depending upon where you live in relation to the sirens, you may not be able to hear them in your home or business. That's why I highly recommend a NOAA Weather Radio with a battery back-up (or similar device) to be sure that you receive any warnings for your area. The Weather Radio will also alert you to other civil emergencies such as chemical spills, etc., as well.

Anonymous said...

I am baffled as to why you didn't update this post with the info that the State Fair officials were in continual contact with the NWS - they weren't relying upon some cop using his smart phone.

Rob In Texas said...


Thanks for the comment.

I haven't really felt that an update was needed. As the original post pointed out, the information provided by the NWS (regardless of how frequently it was updated) was completely wrong. Even the Governor alluded to this in several statements.

I guess I don't see the merit in staying "in continual contact" with a source if that particular source is giving incorrect information.

It's obvious (to me anyway) that by the actions of various security chiefs and other event managers checking their cellphones for weather updates that they also felt like maybe they weren't getting all of the information they should have been...

In any case, this was a tragic example of why events such as these should hire an independent contractor or firm to monitor the weather for them. The NWS is not charged with providing such detailed information for a particular venue, and those with little to no meteorological training should not be forced to rely upon cellphone information for critical weather updates.