Sunday August 14 at approximately 8:49 p.m. EDT, a wind gust estimated at 60 to 70 mph caused the Main Grandstand Stage at the Indiana State Fair to collapse, killing five people and injuring another 45. Since the accident, the Indiana Government has steadfastly denied it has any responsibility for what happened. Governor Mitch Daniels has said it was a “freak” accident, a “fluke” that could not have been prevented. Brad Weaver, commander of special operations for the Indiana State Police, when asked whether it was possible to foresee the wind gusts and evacuate people earlier, said “absolutely not”.
But the facts lead to a different conclusion. According to a timeline released by the Indiana State Police, at 5:57 p.m. the National Weather Service issued a Severe Thunderstorm Watch for all of Central Indiana. At 7:00 p.m., almost two hours prior to the tragic stage collapse, fair staff was specifically warned by NWS that a thunderstorm containing heavy rain, lightning, strong winds and 1 to 2 inches of hail would arrive at the fairgrounds at around 9:00 p.m. At 8:15 p.m., approximately 15 miles away from the State Fair, an announcer at Connor Prairie told a crowd of 7,000 fans waiting to watch the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra that due to concerns about the weather they should immediately return to their cars. At 8:23 p.m., AccuWeather Enterprise Solutions issued a warning of 60 mile an hour winds headed towards the State Fair, and the National Weather Service issued a similar warning at 8:39 p.m. Yet the Indiana State Fair, which was relying on Officer Weaver’s monitoring of a weather radar on his smart phone, never told the crowd to seek shelter and evacuate.
According to AccuWeather Enterprise Solutions senior vice president Mike Smith, the event was predictable and preventable. Indeed, both the facts and common sense compel this conclusion. After all, as much as Governor Daniels would like to claim that weather is unpredictable, the airlines routinely monitor weather and make decisions about whether to cancel flights, and they are dealing with a moving target, as opposed to the State Fair, which was a fixed point sitting in an area where a warning of heavy winds and severe thunderstorms had been issued.
The bottom line is rather than denying responsibility, the Indiana Government should accept its share of the blame for what happened at its State Fair. Accepting responsibility means two things: (1) compensating the victims; and (2) taking steps to avoid similar tragedies in the future.
Unfortunately for the victims of this tragedy, under Indiana Law, when a public entity or employee is responsible for multiple deaths and injuries arising out of a single occurrence, there is a damages cap of $5,000,000 to compensate everyone harmed. See IC 34-13-3-4. This amount of money is totally inadequate to compensate the many victims and their families of this tragedy.
The Indiana Government should do the right thing by immediately establishing a $5 million fund for the victims to obtain this compensation. This will provide some much needed assistance to those who have been harmed during this difficult time. Moreover, Governor Daniels should urge the Indiana legislature to put forth a bill eliminating the $5,000,000 damages cap which unjustly deprives victims of major accidents of their right to hold the Government fully accountable for its wrongful conduct. The new law eliminating the damages cap should be retroactive so the victims of this accident may be fairly compensated for the harm they have sustained.
Finally, the Government should acknowledge that this accident could and should have been prevented. Rather than denying its mistakes and thus being doomed to repeat them, the Government must acknowledge its mistakes so it may learn from them and prevent similar accidents from occurring in the future.
This is not to suggest that the Government is solely, or even mostly, at fault for what happened at the State Fair. There are legitimate questions that must be answered about who else should be held accountable for this accident, such as why the stage assembled by Mid-America Sound Corporation could not withstand 60-70 mile an hour winds. The accident is currently being investigated by various entities including the Indiana State Police, the Indiana Attorney General’s Office, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, and Mid-America Sound Corporation. In due time, the legal process will take its course, and the other entities who contributed to causing this tragedy will be held accountable. Only then will the victims be fully compensated. In the meantime though, the Government should ease the pain by admitting its mistakes and compensating the victims, rather than adding insult to injury by denying responsibility.