Indiana State Fair Collapse--State Fair Management Has Blood on Its Hands

I'm glad to see that the media is starting to take the Indiana State Fair management to task. Regardless of the physical cause of the collapse (and the real cause of that should emerge from the investigation, and appropriate heads should roll if negligence is found or corners were cut), the fact that the show was not stopped when the fair site came under a severe thunderstorm warningis inexcusable, regardless of what else happened. Keep in mind that a warning means severe weather has been observed or is imminent, and a severe thunderstorm is defined as, ". . .a thunderstorm producing hail that is at least quarter size, 1 inch in diameter or larger, and/or wind gusts to 58 mph or greater, and/or a tornado"  Even if the stage remained standing, would you want to be in an outdoor concert in those conditions?  Why didn't they just hold the show for 1/2 an hour and send people to shelter?  Why the hell were the four follow spot operators (one of whom died) up in the roof trussing when a storm like that was approaching?

My old friend Karl Ruling, PLASA Technical Standards Manager (and former co-technical editor for Theatre Crafts and Lighting Dimensions with me back in the day) made an excellent point today on NPR that I also made the other night on the Weatherbrains podcast:

"Frankly, you can't make any structures stand up to all the possible wind conditions on this earth," says Karl Ruling, the technical standards manager for PLASA, a trade group that represents the lighting and sound industries, among others.

PLASA has helped craft voluntary safety standards for outdoor concert stages, like the one that failed in Indiana. Ruling says the standards for wind vary depending on what's likely in a given location. But what doesn't change is the need for a backup plan when the weather turns extreme.

"You need to have a plan of, 'What are you going to do to watch the weather?' And exactly at what points do you say, 'It's getting dangerous'?" says Ruling. "So if you do it, I'm not going to guarantee that the wind won't blow something down. But if you follow the standard, you're going to have everyone out of the way."

On the same broadcast, Paul Wertheimer also hits the nail on the head:

... safety consultant Paul Wertheimer says officials at the state fair had plenty of warning that the storm was coming. The Indianapolis Symphony canceled its outdoor concert just 13 miles away, and Wertheimer says the state fair could have done the same — but it didn't.

"Had the stage simply collapsed without the crowd underneath, we probably wouldn't be talking about this today," says Wertheimer. "The main issue is the crowd. And that's what officials don't want to talk about: the failure to manage the crowd and protect them."

The Indianapolis Star today has a great piece bringing the point home, showing how many days of severe warnings fair management had, and detailed how they frittered away precious minutes once the severe thunderstorm warning--the most serious warning from the NWS--was issued. 

I've been posting information here since hours after the collapse, and until now, I kept my opinion in reserve until further information emerged. But now, assuming the accuracy of the timeline of ineptitude detailed in the IndyStar piece, I will say publicly what I've believed all along--the state fair management has blood on its hands.

This was not a "freakish act of God"--it was a well-predicted severe weather event in a part of the country where severe thunderstorms with strong outflow winds are not at all uncommon. They should have known better, and been ready to spring into action with an evacuation order the second the severe thunderstorm warning was issued, especially since the news of recent collapses should have been foremost in their minds.

But perhaps they were complacent because what of what fair spokesman Andy Klotz says in the article:

Fair officials had no reason to think the storm would cause the extent of damage that it did, Klotz said. Just a week earlier, the fairgrounds had three thunderstorms that he called "very similar," without the same punishing results.

This is a classic safety fallacy, detailed in exquisite detail by the briilliant Richard Feynman in his book about the space shuttle Challenger disaster, where management assumes that because something hasn't happened before, that it won't happen now. The fact that two thunderstorms occurred and did not cause damage does not decrease the probability that a severe storm will cause damage.  The risk is the same--launching the shuttle 10 times safely and not changing anything else does not make the 11th launch safer.

This great quote, attributed to Feynman, seems appropriate:

For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.

http://www.controlgeek.net/blog/2011/8/14/indiana-state-fair-stage-collapse.html

Update

on 2011-08-18 12:48 by controlgeek

Video of the announcement made to the crowd )via Severe Studios and lightning expert Tom Warner of ZTResearch):

Note the lightning in the background, and the outflow boundary clouds (horizontal clouds that looks sort of like a shelf) already forming. 

This was just four minutes before the stage collapses, but six minutes after the severe thunderstorm warning was issued.  Where is the urgency in the announcement?

Update

on 2011-08-18 19:15 by controlgeek

Tim Marshall, a long time storm chaser, engineer, and severe storm damage expert, is on the job, shown here in this piece for Indianapolis' WTHR:

Update: As of 3pm NYC time WTHR seems to be having web site problems--not sure what's up with this video.

I've heard Tim speak at a couple of the Storm Chaser Conventions and he is as hilarious as he is brilliant.

Update

on 2011-08-19 13:00 by controlgeek

Looks like the Weather Channel's Mike Bettes agrees with me:

Update

on 2012-04-12 18:06 by controlgeek

I just posted a followup here.