The stage collapse at the Indiana state fair Saturday night is being described as a fluke incident. I could not disagree more. The definition of the noun fluke is: “an accident or chance happening”. This wasn’t by that definition and here’s why.
Timeline of Events (State Police)
At 7 p.m. Saturday, NWS in Indianapolis told fair officials that a thunderstorm would be in the area of the fairgrounds between 9 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. and that the storm would have heavy rain, lightning, strong winds and hail of up to 2 inches, according to the timeline released by ISP.
Fair staff was told of the severe thunderstorm watch by an autodialer shortly after 7 p.m. and again a little after 8 p.m., according to information provided by ISP.
At 8:30 p.m., ISP officers were moved to the grandstand to assist security and other personnel in the evacuation of concert attendees.
A severe thunderstorm warning was issued for Marion County at 8:39 p.m.
At 8:45 p.m., the concert emcee announced to attendees that severe weather was moving in, and attendees were told “how and where to seek shelter,” according to the released timeline.
The stage collapsed at 8:49 p.m., four minutes after the announcement from the stage.
Within a minute, the Indiana Fire Department was alerted of “a collapse with injuries at the fairgrounds.”
At 8:51 p.m., IFD workers who were on site responded to the collapse, and additional IFD and EMS units were dispatched to the scene.
By 8:54 p.m., crews had confirmed a collapse with multiple injuries, according to ISP’s timeline.
At 8:55 p.m., the Indianapolis Metro Police Emergency Response Group arrived at the scene of the collapse.
The Marion County coroner was called to the collapse at 9:06 p.m., and power was cut to the stage at 9:13 p.m.
Someone from the coroner’s office arrived at the scene at 9:15 p.m.
At 10:03 p.m., the incident was upgraded to a “Mass Casualty Incident Level 3.”
Two minutes later, all patients had been transported from the scene, including all five who died.
Indiana Task Force One was called to search the rubble at 10:26 p.m., with the search beginning a half-hour later.
At 11:27 p.m., the search was completed, and rescue operations concluded at 11:46 p.m., ISP said.
A secondary search of the Indiana State Fairgrounds was completed at 1:53 a.m. Sunday.
Nexrad Doppler radar at 7:59pm and you already see a problem as a gust front is visible on the radar well ahead of the actual rain.
Nexrad Doppler at 8:30 pm gust front is now 19 minutes away.
Nexrad Doppler at 8:44pm and the gust front is just 5 minutes away.
Nexrad Doppler radar at exactly 8:48 and 42 seconds.
This is what it actually looked like from Jessica(Jsilas7) a YouTuber who I contacted and she told me the timestamp on her camera was at 8:47 when she started rolling.
Loop from 8:00-9:06pm Local time. (Click to loop)
What happened here was that either communications broke down or the threat was greatly misunderstood by the officials at the Fair Grounds. These storms did not just pop-up or pulse right over the fair grounds which would indeed have been a fluke. There was plenty of warning, if you you knew or wanted to know what was going to happen. The focus on the actual Severe Thunderstorm Warning is insignificant in my opinion. The warning was issued at 8:39pm which was 10 mins before the stage collapsed. A severe thunderstorm warning is only issued when winds are 58mph or higher or hail is 1” in diameter or larger. Problem here is you have people in an outdoor event and around a temporary structure which requires them to seek shelter at a much lower threshold. Something that should have been known by those organizing the event. One of the fatalities was a stage hand in a metal light structure running a spot light, with lightning clearly visible in the distance. Lightning alone was sufficient reason to evacuate people and since lightning was within 10 miles of the fair grounds patrons should have been seeking shelter. Then you had at least 40-50 mph winds in these storms. Not enough to issue a warning but enough if I’m in a tent, camper or temporary structure, I’m evacuating that structure and I’m seeking shelter.
This is where I would recommend any outdoor event either have a trained meteorologist on-site or on call during the entire event. If you have trained police, fire and medics on site for emergencies then why not a meteorologist?”
The reliance on smartphone apps which was quoted by officials at the press conference Saturday night is unacceptable. As seen in the radar images the gust front was a huge threat that to an untrained eye and on a composite radar on your phone is not detectable. I love technology and especially my iPhone, but a weather app is not a meteorologist just like WebMD is not a doctor.
We need to learn from this incident and make weather preparedness a priority in all our outdoor events and activities. It amazes me the amount of safety precautions and preparation we make for terrorism, fire, and car crashes. Yet we still do very little for severe weather safety and preparation which occurs far more frequently and widespread than the prior.
Questions, comments or discussion are greatly appreciated. Because these are the types of things we need to talk about before they happen again. I don’t pretend to have all the answers or claim that all weather disasters can be predicted precisely. I know that having a plan and proper information and communications can greatly prevent such disasters in the future.
Brad Panovich Chief Meteorologist at WCNC-TV, Charlotte, NC
Related Blog posts with further insight into this tragedy:
Chuck Doswell Magnifying a Tragedy (Very Good Read)