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On August 13, 2011, a violent wind gust toppled 35 tons of stage rigging onto a crowd at the Indiana State Fair. Now, survivors of that night reveal the chaos, terror, heroism, providence, and pain. And the slow healing.
This article appeared in the August 2012 issue and is part of Indianapolis Monthly’s celebration of longform journalism.
Writing long features always takes a toll. There is never enough time to finish, to get in the reporting you want, to run down every lead that pops up along the way. And when the story is way past due, it’s difficult to think about anything other than how in the hell you’re going to finish it. The work follows me home, where I sit on the couch and stare silently at the television.
After doing this job for more than a decade, I finally learned something. Not that in crisis, ordinary people perform remarkable acts of courage and charity for complete strangers. Nor that they can somehow endure when chaos inflicts terrible pain and rips their lives apart. No, not that.
What I learned is that their stories touch me, too. And I like to think that the retelling of those stories is the better for it. —Evan West, author
Shannon Raddin watched with dread as a tethered balloon whipped wildly above the crowd.
She and her 10-year-old daughter, Jade Walcott, were waiting for the Sugarland concert to begin. They had traveled 120 miles to see the band perform at the Indiana State Fair, and waited nearly four hours in line before taking their places in the “Sugarpit,” one row back, center stage. Now the sky to the northwest was dark, and the wind howled. She was afraid that if the crowd had to leave, she and Jade would lose their spot.
Raddin, a caterer and real-estate agent from northern Kentucky, near Cincinnati, and her daughter had already attended two Sugarland concerts together. They had road-tripped to see the group a few months earlier in Nashville, where they danced in the Sugarpit just a few feet away from singer Jennifer Nettles. Standing up close was awesome, Raddin thought, so she decided to buy Sugarpit passes again for the show in Indianapolis.
After the opening act, by singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles, a man behind Raddin held up an ominous radar image on his smartphone. Then an announcer came onstage—the show would start soon, even with the impending weather.
But when the winds came, and the balloon did its angry dance, Jade turned to her mom, eyes wide. She had always been afraid of storms.
Jason Puma was supposed to have the night off. He was at home with his family in Fishers when the phone rang—it must have been before 5:30; he remembers because he had grilled hamburgers and was just sitting down to dinner. It was Sonia Mark Flechtner, the lead forecaster on duty at the National Weather Service office in Indianapolis. “Hey, Jason, there are some storms out in eastern Illinois,” she said. “We need a little help. Can you come in?”
For a meteorologist, evening and overnight shifts are part of the routine. Day or night, someone at Puma’s office—the last stop on a dead-end road in a lonesome corner of the Indianapolis International Airport grounds—is always watching the weather. So Puma half-expected the phone call. The previous day, he and his colleagues had noticed that a cold front pushing down over Wisconsin had churned up a nasty line of thunderstorms. When the front reached the damp dishrag of hot air hanging over Indiana, storms would likely pop up here as well. Hazardous Weather Outlooks issued by the NWS on Thursday and Friday predicted as much. At 5:57 p.m. on Saturday, the office issued a severe thunderstorm watch—a “heads up”—for all of Central Indiana.
As Puma drove toward the airport from the northeast, sunlight streamed through his car windows, and bright blue sky stretched to the horizon. For a moment, the veteran scientist mused over the contrast. Here, a perfect day. To the west, a gathering storm, approaching fast.
Puma arrived at the weather-service office at 6:15 p.m. and took up his station in front of four computer monitors in the operations area, a bullpen in the heart of the weather center. He watched the radar until, an hour later, hell broke loose over Tippecanoe County, about 60 miles northwest of Indianapolis, and the three meteorologists on duty had to scramble to keep up. At 7:14, inch-size hail pelted Lafayette. In a span of 17 minutes, the storm pushed over several trees in Battle Ground and zoomed through Clarks Hill with gusts approaching 60 miles per hour. The tempest, pictured as pixilated blobs of green, orange, and red—“echoes” picked up by radar reflecting off of precipitation in the atmosphere—was creeping toward the white lines that demarked Marion County on Puma’s screen.
Puma kept a close eye on the developments. It was his job to issue official warnings to the authorities, media, and public. But as the hour approached 8:00, and the storm, in an arc stretching from Terre Haute to Warsaw, made its way southeast, conditions changed. Spotters reported smaller hail and slower winds. The radar, once ablaze with red, now glowed with milder yellows and greens.
A calm before the storm.
Around the time Puma arrived at work, Tricia Hammer and AmyLynn Byrd were lined up at the State Fair grandstand with Tricia’s husband, Darrell, waiting to get into the Sugarland concert. It might have been a stretch to call Byrd and Hammer “Sugarfans.” The term, properly used, refers to bona fide, diehard followers of the country-music duo, whose name lends itself to tacking the “sugar” prefix on just about anyone and anything in the band’s orbit—appropriate, considering its catchy melodies and sticky-sweet lyrics. Byrd and Tricia Hammer, friends since dental-hygiene school, had seen Sugarland perform on the Indiana State Fair free stage in 2005, when the band was still a threesome and nowhere near as popular as it is now, and a time or two since. But last year, the two women were ready to kick up their fandom a notch. When they heard that Sugarland was coming to the Fair as a headliner, Tricia Hammer went online to sign up for the group’s coveted Sugarpasses, which would get her and two friends into the concert’s Sugarpit.
The plan was to make it a girls’ night. Then the third woman in the group bailed at the last minute, and Darrell volunteered to go. The couple drove down early from Noblesville and spent the afternoon at the Fair; Byrd, who lives in Crawfordsville, met them at about 6:00 outside the grandstand that flanks the southern stretch of the Fairgrounds’ dusty racetrack. Although Sugarland wasn’t scheduled to go on until 8:45, fans were already lining up to get in, and the trio joined them. By the time they reached the Sugarpit, a backyard-size patch of dirt between the grandstand and the stage’s concrete platform, other fans had already staked out the very best front-and-center positions. So Byrd and the Hammers made their way to the western end of the Sugarpit and settled into an area just a few arm-lengths from the 4-foot-high dais. As it turned out, they were still plenty close to the show—just close enough.
Charlie Morgan has been to more concerts than he cares to count. Once a country-music DJ and now a radio executive at Emmis Communications (IM’s parent company), Morgan usually attends gigs to work—just another suit backstage, glad-handing industry types before slipping out a song or two into the set.
The concert on August 13 was supposed to be different. Years ago, at the annual Country Radio Seminar in Nashville, Morgan caught an artist showcase featuring a poppy outfit called Sugarland. He’d seen a lot of these up-and-comers fizzle out. But there was something about this act—the upbeat lyrics and melodies, the pretty singer and skilled musicianship. These guys are going to make it, he thought.
More than that, Morgan liked Sugarland’s songs. So when the opportunity came to see the duo headline at the Fair, he made plans with his wife, Kelly, and another couple to attend. That evening, Morgan threw on a camp shirt, shorts, and a brand-new pair of boat shoes, ready to enjoy himself. After dinner at Binkley’s Kitchen & Bar in Broad Ripple, the four showed up at the Fairgrounds in time to catch Sara Bareilles. They took their seats in the grandstand, almost at center stage.
During Bareilles’s performance, a man in the row ahead of Morgan pulled up a weather radar on his phone. Wow, that looks like some thunderstorms, Morgan thought. That seems crazy. It’s sunny. He tried a dozen or so times to pull up the radar on his own phone, but the image wouldn’t load. In the distance, lightning flashed—heat lightning, maybe. But nothing frightening. Then, in the lull between acts, the storm came into view beyond the stage. “It was surprising how
rapidly conditions changed,” he says.
Puma watched as the first wave of thunderstorms sweeping down from Tippecanoe County appeared to peter out. But the squall wasn’t finished. It ushered in lower temperatures that forced the warmer air hanging over the west side of Indianapolis to shoot into the upper atmosphere, like a geyser. Cooler air rushed out ahead of the thunderstorm and raced along the ground, in gusts that tore across the city’s west side. By 8:30, the newly invigorated storm cell was rolling east.
Puma had seen enough. He started typing:
The national weather service in indianapolis has issued a severe thunderstorm warning … doppler radar indicated a line of severe thunderstorms capable of producing quarter-size hail and damaging winds in excess of 60 mph … for your protection move to an interior room on the lowest floor of your home or business.
The warning included Marion and several surrounding counties. He punched in his name—PUMA—at the bottom. At 8:39 p.m., he pulled the trigger.
Who said what, and to whom, and when, is in dispute. This much seems certain: As the sky blackened to the west of the Fairgrounds, confusion took hold backstage at the concert.
According to a deposition transcript and a report later commissioned by the State of Indiana, Fair officials followed forecasts from the National Weather Service throughout the day. Executive director Cindy Hoye, concerned about the coming storms, called an 8 p.m. meeting in a small trailer near the stage, and the group discussed how rain might affect the Sugarland concert’s scheduled 8:45 start time.
In the deposition, Hoye would later say that she asked an event promoter to leave the trailer and “communicate to the act that, given this information, that our choice was to delay the concert.” The promoter met with Sugarland’s tour and production managers, Helen Rollens and Chris Crawford, under the stage, where Rollens claimed that the band played in rain frequently, and that, rather than delay the show, she’d prefer to start on time and pause if weather conditions demanded. Lead singer Jennifer Nettles would need 30 minutes to warm up her voice, Rollens explained, and the band was looking at a long trip to Des Moines after the concert. After the event promoter made a second visit to the band’s management, it was agreed that the show would be postponed for five minutes, until 8:50.
Sometime after the meeting in the trailer, which wrapped up at about 8:15, Hoye ran into Indianapolis State Police captain Brad Weaver, commander of special operations. Weaver was in plainclothes and off-duty for the night, attending the concert with his wife, but he shared Hoye’s concerns about the weather. “Ma’am, it’s not my call; it’s not my site,” he told her, according to the report. “But if it were me, I’d shut it down.” The two of them discussed an evacuation plan. At 8:39, the National Weather Service issued Puma’s severe thunderstorm warning, but neither Hoye nor Weaver received it. (Through spokespeople, the two declined IM’s interview requests, as did Rollens.)
As the new showtime approached, Hoye prepared an announcement for the audience. At 8:40, she saw Bob Richards, an operations manager for Emmis radio—and a longtime friend—standing in the concert area next to the Sugarpit, just beyond the concrete barricades that separated the crowd from the back of the house. Hoye summoned him over. She wanted Richards, a professional voice man, to deliver the address.
“Normally, at a crowd-welcome-type situation, your job is to get the crowd excited,” says Richards, “and claim credit for the radio station. Hey, they’re coming up next, or, and here they are—kind of get the energy level to the point where they’re ready to start a show. This was different, and I needed to remember exactly what she wanted me to say.”
Richards took out his smartphone and typed in the words as Hoye dictated. When she was finished, he held up the phone to show her what he had typed. She read for a moment, pointed at the stage, and said, “Go.”
He walked over to a small tent on the east side of the stage, where the monitor board was set up, to deliver the address. The sound guy directed him instead to the front-of-house microphone at center stage. There, Richards held his phone and paraphrased the words Hoye had given him:
Good evening. How are you? As you can see to the west, there are some clouds. We are all hoping for the best, that the weather is going to bypass us. But there is a very good chance that it won’t. So just a quick heads-up before the show starts: If there is a point during the show where we have to stop the show onstage, what we’d like to have you do is calmly move toward the exits, and then head across the street to either the Champions Pavilion, the Blue Ribbon Pavilion, or the Pepsi Coliseum. And then, once the storm passes and everything’s safe, we’re going to try our best to come back and resume the show—which we have every belief that that’s going to happen. So please, get ready, because in just a couple of minutes we’re going to try to get Sugarland onstage. Have a great show.
When Captain Weaver heard the announcement, he told Hoye that he thought she was going to instruct Richards to tell the crowd to evacuate. He demanded that the show be shut down. “Cindy Hoye looked at me,” the report later quoted Weaver as saying, “nodded her head ‘yes,’ and we started walking backstage.”
All day, the sun had warmed AmyLynn Byrd’s face, and a gentle summer breeze had tousled her hair. Now, as she waited for Sugarland, a sudden onslaught of brisk winds picked up grit from the surface of the dirt racetrack, scouring her skin like a sandblaster. Tricia Hammer, who wore contact lenses, struggled to see. Other concertgoers in the Sugarpit were already filing out through the exit. When Byrd and the Hammers heard Richards’s announcement, they decided to stick it out. Maybe they know something we don’t. Then Byrd looked off to her left and saw a dust devil whirling over the track. “I think we should just go,” she said.
“Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God! There’re people trapped under there!”
As the three of them turned their backs and started to leave the concert, a giant wall of wind smacked the scaffolding above the platform. Darrell Hammer turned to look. The tarp covering the structure rippled violently, and the entire assembly began to sway. Big, cannon-shaped lights up in the rafters rattled, and as he watched, a suspended, circular LED screen began to swing from side to side, like a pendulum. Cables attached to the topmost corners of the structure dragged large concrete slabs along the parking lot next to the stage.
The rigging lurched forward. “Go!” Darrell shouted. Then, quiet—as though he were running through a tunnel. Nothing but the ground at his feet, and a few figures beyond that, sprinting ahead of him. He stumbled, his wife yanked his arm, and what felt like a blast from a giant bellows shoved him forward.
When Darrell stood up again, he was out of his mental tunnel, and the sound was back on. Screams. The scaffolding lay crumpled on the ground a few feet away, the bony remains of a steel giant, right where Byrd had stood just moments before. People scrambled in all directions, some toward the exit, others toward the wreckage. From somewhere in the crowd, Darrell heard a hysterical voice: “Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God! There’re people trapped under there!” He spun around, and his wife, ashen and trembling, was standing next to him. Byrd was nowhere to be seen. “Where’s AmyLynn?”
Darrell’s thoughts raced. She is probably dead. He imagined himself talking to Byrd’s husband, trying to describe to him what had happened, trying to tell him that his wife was gone.
A few miles from the Fairgrounds, Steve Simpson waited at a stoplight at the intersection of Broad Ripple and College avenues, talking on the phone with a friend who was working on the northwest side of town, near 86th Street and Michigan Road. “Man, has this storm come through where you are yet?” the friend had asked him, minutes before. “This gust of wind came through that was just unbelievable.” Suddenly, Simpson’s car was rocking on its springs, an awning over a doorway on College started flapping aggressively, and several red plastic cups came flying past. The cups, the kind used at keg parties, blew from the west side of the street to the east, which struck Simpson as odd. It seemed more likely that beer cups would be blowing away from Broad Ripple rather than toward it. “Hey, I think I just got your gust of wind,” Simpson told his friend.
The light turned, and Simpson continued north on College. A radio newsman at 93.1 WIBC FM, Simpson had the night off and was heading home to Nora after having dinner downtown with friends. As he approached 86th Street, a media text alert from the Indianapolis Fire Department buzzed his phone. “1202 E 38 ST,” it read. “MASS CASUALTY.”
Simpson guessed that something had fallen, from the wind. A few minutes later, as he pulled into his garage, a call came in from Alan Furst, the station’s program director. “I just heard from Charlie Morgan,” said Furst. “The State Fair stage collapsed.”
From his perch in the grandstand, Morgan had seen the stage roof tip, break free from its uprights, and come crashing to the ground—all in slow motion, it seemed. Then he gathered up his wife and friends, pulled them toward the stairs, and rushed to the Blue Ribbon Pavilion behind the stands. He had seen colleague Bob Richards onstage what seemed like seconds before; he wondered whether his friend was still alive. When Morgan heard that Richards and the other Emmis people on hand were all accounted for, it dawned on him that his news station, WIBC, should be covering the story. Though he hadn’t logged an air shift for 15 years—and never as a reporter—he called Furst.
“We need to get on the air,” Furst said when he reached Simpson. The plan was for Morgan to call into the station so that Simpson, patched in from his home studio, could take the conversation live. But the cell towers were jammed; it seemed everyone at the Fairgrounds was trying to call, text, and post at the same time. Simpson quickly opened the back door for Duchess, his 85-pound German shepherd, and then dashed to his home’s spare room, fired up a briefcase-size broadcast module, and pulled on a wireless headset. He also turned on a radio scanner. Amidst the chatter, he made out the words “Fair” and “triage” and “ambulance.”
At 9:19 p.m., Simpson’s producer was in his ear. “Charlie’s on the phone,” he said.
Simpson: Charlie, good evening, can you tell us what you’re seeing? What has happened?
Morgan: Here’s what I can tell you. We saw the stage collapse. I am now inside the Blue Ribbon Pavilion, which is where they ushered people quickly out of the grandstands, for safety. Unfortunately, though, before that could happen, literally two minutes after our operations manager Bob Richards had just gone onstage to make the preliminary weather-warning announcement, a huge gust of wind came from the west to the east, right across the track of the main-stage area, and the entire rigging came down onto the stage and, it appears from where I was standing, also onto people standing on the track.
It was the first live broadcast from the scene of the accident. For close to 20 minutes, Morgan’s voice painted a picture of the crash, the chaos, and the crowd huddled around him like refugees in the pavilion where they sought shelter.
“As you saw that thing come down,” Morgan would later say, “there was no doubt in your mind that people had lost their lives.” But without any confirmed casualty reports, on air he and Simpson had to communicate in a kind of code.
“Charlie, how bad does this look?” Simpson asked.
“It’s bad,” Morgan replied.
As Darrell Hammer stood looking at the wrecked stage, thinking the worst, a voice snapped him out of his reverie. It was his missing friend, AmyLynn Byrd. She was standing next to what had been a nearly five-story-high corner of the scaffolding, rattled but okay. “There’s someone trapped under here,” she said, waving him over.
Hammer approached and saw a woman with short hair pinned under the bars. Earlier, she and another woman with long dark hair, who appeared to be the woman’s girlfriend, had been standing a few feet off to the right. The two had been dancing, smiling, embracing.
A section of the metal lay across the woman’s chest and face. She was writhing. She’ll need extensive reconstructive work if she survives, thought Byrd, the dental hygienist. She and Hammer dug their feet into the ground, lunged at the scaffolding above the woman, and pushed. It might as well have weighed a million pounds. But the woman managed to wriggle free. Another woman pulled her away from the pile and laid her out on the ground, where she waited for medical help. Hammer and Byrd never did spot the woman with the long dark hair, the one they’d seen with the trapped woman before the collapse.
A few paces away from where Byrd and the Hammers stood, Mark Metz, a respiratory-therapy student and funeral director from Indianapolis, had awaited the Sugarland show with friends Roger Davis, Roger Dake, and Kevin Lapkovitch. The stage rigging began to fall—here it comes—and three of the men scrambled to avoid its path. Lapkovitch, though, froze and watched in terror. He saw the giant, circular LED screen break loose and roll across the stage like a bicycle wheel. He saw one of the stage crew, at the last possible moment, dash across the platform and yank out an electrical cord. He saw two other crew members fall through the air. When he finally turned to run, something heavy knocked him forward, face-first into the dirt. A piece of scaffolding had grazed his back before the structure landed.
The whoosh of air forced out by the collapse toppled Metz, Davis, and Dake, and the three of them fell over each other like dominoes. Metz got to his feet and looked around. In the confusion, he couldn’t see Davis, who had been standing in the very spot where downed steel now lay. Metz ducked under the wreckage, looking for his friend—and hoping to not find him there. Outside the rubble, screaming. Inside, a hush. “I’ll never forget that silence,” he says.
Metz heard one of his friends calling; they had found Davis. He started crawling back out of the wreckage and spotted a short, heavy woman lying under a bar that had formed one of the structure’s top cross-sections. He had seen her earlier, partying right up next to the stage, wearing a bandanna. Now she was limp, with a grisly head wound. Metz continued past her and emerged from the wreckage so his friends would know he was okay. Behind him, concertgoers who’d been unable to escape the fall were climbing out of the pile and crawling across the scaffolding, moaning and bloody.
By now, people who had been standing farther back in the concert area were swimming upstream through the exiting crowd to help others who might still be trapped. A stranger approached Metz, and the two men leaned into the steel bars over the woman in the bandanna. They grunted against the impossible weight. Another Samaritan managed to pull her free, and Metz and the stranger each checked for a pulse that wasn’t there. A woman claiming to be a nurse ran up and said she could help. Metz told her there was no heartbeat, so she moved on, looking for more of the injured.
As the friends moved away from the pile, an image of two little girls flashed into Dake’s thoughts. Before the accident, he had seen a man lead them up to the stage to get a front-row view of the show. Dake had not seen them since.
The last thing Shannon Raddin remembers is the tethered balloon, swirling in the air overhead as if circling a drain. Then, suddenly, a light broke away from the scaffolding and crashed onto the stage.
“Mommy!” Jade shouted, as she clung to Raddin. The mother threw her right arm around her girl, and they turned to run.
When Raddin came to, she was pinned facedown in the dirt, with something heavy crushing her legs and back. It was difficult to breathe. She heard shrieking. Thinking she might be paralyzed, she tried wiggling her toes. She could feel them, but she couldn’t see whether they were responding.
Raddin turned her face toward a gap between the ground and the steel bars that now lay all around her, and she saw feet walking outside. She prayed for Jade and tried to remember the breathing exercises she had used during childbirth.
Amid the screams, Raddin heard voices chanting in unison: One, two, three. One, two, three. Someone must have seen her feet protruding from the perimeter of the fallen structure, because a voice called to her. Raddin couldn’t reply loudly enough to be heard. The stranger touched her toes and asked Raddin to move them if she was alive.
One, two, three. One, two, three.
The weight came off, and someone dragged Raddin from beneath the pile. Searing, blinding pain. She was squirming, and strangers around her hollered at her to keep her neck straight. But it was her left leg that hurt—as though it were being ripped from the socket. She shouted at them to hold up her leg: “Right now!” She forced the words out in gasps. “Right now!”
With the leg elevated, Raddin’s thoughts began to clear, and she wheezed out more words: “My 10-year-old girl …” The rescuers took up the call, shouting over the pandemonium. There’s a 10-year-old girl missing. Look for a 10-year-old girl.
Raddin continued to hear the calls as volunteers lifted her onto a makeshift stretcher—a wooden folding chair—and hustled her to one of the triage areas now popping up around the grandstand. She kept passing out and eventually found herself in an ambulance, where she begged a paramedic to give her something for the pain. Another survivor rode with her in the back of the vehicle. Raddin asked the woman to pray with her. To pray for her daughter.
It was already close to 9:00, and the emergency department at Wishard Hospital was off to a slow start. On a busy night, the ED at Wishard, one of two Level I adult trauma centers in the state, might see more than 400 patients. Only 66 cases had come in so far. “It was an atypical night, calm,” says Nicole Olson, the charge nurse on duty. “Almost eerie.”
In the lull, Olson sat chatting with Dr. Charles Miramonti, the coordinating physician, next to a pot of stale coffee in a cramped, windowless office deep in the winding bowels of the hospital. Then a security officer stuck his head in the doorway. He was picking up chatter over the radio—a mass-casualty event at the Fairgrounds. Soon, off-duty staffers who had heard about the stage collapse were calling Olson to ask if they should come in.
Miramonti and Olson got busy locating empty beds throughout the hospital in order to free the five trauma or “shock” rooms in the ED. Miramonti, also the head of Indianapolis EMS, communicated with paramedics and firefighters who were setting up triage stations at the Fairgrounds in the rain and mud that followed the collapse and trafficking ambulances to ferry the wounded. The most critical or “red” patients would go to Methodist Hospital, the Level I trauma center closest to the scene of the accident. Wishard and St. Vincent Hospital, on the north side, would take the yellows and greens. Riley Hospital for Children, the state’s only Level I pediatric trauma center, would take the kids. Early estimates placed the number of fatalities as high as 40, with possibly hundreds seriously injured.
The collapse had occurred at 8:46 p.m. A little after 9:10, 11 ambulances were pulling up to these four hospitals to unload their cargo. Methodist, which took in eight critically injured patients right out of the gate, became quickly overwhelmed, and a distress call went out to Wishard, where the influx had yet to reach its apex. Soon, emergency vehicles lined the narrow, quarter-circle ambulance bay behind the hospital. “The folks coming in looked shell-shocked,” says Miramonti. Many wore makeshift triage tags of torn cardboard and black marker, hastily written by off-duty medical professionals who had rushed into the wreckage.
Nearly everyone who came through Wishard’s sliding glass doors from the Fairgrounds had suffered blunt-force trauma, head wounds and fractures, and gaping lacerations. Shannon Raddin was one of them. Her pelvis was broken in three places, and she had four cracked ribs and three damaged vertebrae. One of the hot lights from the stage rigging had left a third-degree burn on her leg. A woman, Raddin doesn’t know who, came into the room. “Where’s my daughter?” Raddin asked. In the fog, she tried to explain that Jade had dark curly hair; she couldn’t remember exactly what Jade was wearing—black pants, maybe.
“We found a girl matching her description,” the woman replied. “She’s at another hospital, having brain surgery.”
Four days passed before Raddin could get out of bed and into a wheelchair to endure the trip across the medical campus to Riley Hospital. Jade’s father, grandmothers, and grandfather had been there since the night of the accident, holding vigil.
Jade had shown up at the hospital with the back of her skull crushed. Doctors intubated her and, in an emergency procedure, removed a portion of the bone to relieve the pressure from swelling in her brain. They froze the fragment so it could be reset in the unlikely event the girl survived.
When Raddin arrived, Jade was still in a medically induced coma. She remained in that state for 20 days, as doctors monitored the swelling. In the meantime, Raddin’s family, connecting with other survivors on Facebook, began to piece together what had happened after mother and daughter were separated: A French Lick golf course superintendent named Russ Apple found Jade in the darkness, under a pile of wires. He dragged her out from under the tangle and carried her to a police officer. The officer called out for someone with pediatric experience. Cali Schoenhardt, a nurse from Texas, answered. Jade, her hair soaked with blood, wasn’t breathing but still had a pulse. Schoenhardt put a breathing mask over Jade’s face and pumped air in and out of the girl’s lungs until she started breathing on her own. Jade vomited and curled up into the fetal position—a bad sign. The nurse fought to get Jade onto one of the first ambulances leaving the Fairgrounds: “She’s dying.”
Another little girl, who was wearing a pink tutu when the night began, also lay in Riley Hospital. Her grandmother, like Raddin, had been rushed to Wishard, her mother to Methodist. Eventually, the two women would share the same tortured waiting room with Jade Walcott’s family.
Laura Magdziarz, from Morocco, in northwest Indiana, had planned a mother-daughter day at the Sugarland concert, this one spanning three generations: her mom, Donna, and her three daughters, Gabby, 12, Dani, 10, and Maggie, 3. Maggie had been obsessed with Sugarland since hearing “Stuck Like Glue,” and in the months leading up to the concert, she hardly listened to anything else. She had seen Jennifer Nettles wearing a tutu while singing the song on television and planned to wear her own miniature version to the State Fair show. But by the time the concert rolled around, the garment had become ragged from overuse. They made a stop at a T.J.Maxx store in Indianapolis to buy a new pink tutu, and then the five spent the day at the Fair, riding rides and winning stuffed animals on the Midway.
In the Sugarpit, Maggie sat on her mom’s shoulders. She held a sign—I ♥ SUGARLAND—just to the right of center stage, close enough for Magdziarz to rest her right arm on the platform. When the biting winds came, she told the girls to put their heads down, and they started to head toward the exit. Then she saw a beam on the stage structure sag and give. “Run!” she yelled.
The next thing Magdziarz remembers, it was dark, and Dani, her middle daughter, was standing over her. “Are you okay?” the mother asked. “Yeah,” said Dani. “Are you okay, Mom?” Magdziarz said that she was. Then she saw Maggie standing a few feet away, leaning against a beam. She got up and tried to walk toward the little girl, but her leg gave way and she fell to the ground. She had two fractures, she later learned, and three shredded ligaments in her left knee. She crawled to Maggie and scooped her into her lap.
“Her arm, Mom, look at her arm!” Dani said. Then Magdziarz noticed the gaping wound and the blood-soaked tutu. Maggie was in trouble. The clock was ticking.
“My daughter is hurt!” Magdziarz yelled, desperate. A stranger appeared and made a tourniquet for Maggie, and then a woman who said she was a nurse and a man who said he was a doctor carried her away.
Trust us, they said.
When Charlie Morgan finally went off-air that night, he heard that the state police had scheduled a 10 p.m. news conference on the other side of the Fairgrounds. So he explained to his wife and their companions that he had to leave them behind at the Blue Ribbon Pavilion. “Until somebody gets here to relieve me,” he told them, “I have to go cover this.” He stepped out into the rain and started jogging. As he ran, he looked down at his brand-new shoes, now soaked. They’re ruined, he thought. He stayed at the Fairgrounds until the arrival of WIBC reporter Eric Berman, who covered the aftermath until after 2 a.m. “I still have the pair of shoes I wore that night,” says Morgan. “There’s something about them that doesn’t allow me to throw them away.” WIBC would later be recognized by the Associated Press for its breaking coverage of the disaster.
In the Fairgrounds parking lot, emergency vehicles blocked in AmyLynn Byrd’s car. The lot didn’t clear out until midnight or so, and Tricia and Darrell Hammer each gave Byrd a big hug and drove off. When she was alone, sitting in the driver’s seat, she broke down sobbing. She cried all the way to Crawfordsville. She later learned that the woman she and Darrell Hammer had tried to free from the wreckage, Alisha Brennon, had survived. Christina Santiago, 29, the long-haired woman they had seen with Brennon before the collapse, had not. In September 2011, Brennon filed a wrongful-death suit; although Indiana doesn’t recognize the civil union she shared with Santiago, an LGBT-rights activist, in December the state nevertheless paid more than $300,000 to Brennon as administratrix of Santiago’s estate. Brennon still has a claim pending against several private companies involved in planning and setup for the concert.
Santiago was one of seven people who died from injuries sustained that night: Alina BigJohny, 23, a recent Manchester College graduate from Fort Wayne. Nathan Lee Byrd, 51, and Glenn Goodrich, 49, a stagehand and a security guard from Indianapolis. Tammy VanDam, 42, a homemaker from Wanatah. Jennifer Haskell, 22, a Ball State student from Parker City. Meagan Toothman, 24, a cheerleading coach from Cincinnati.
This month, the Fair’s main-stage concerts will be held at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in downtown Indianapolis. Sugarland held a make-up concert there last October for survivors of what came to be known as the Indiana State Fair Stage Collapse. Following the accident, AmyLynn Byrd connected with other attendees through Facebook groups, and after the Fieldhouse concert she and the Hammers joined a get-together at a downtown restaurant, where crutches, walkers, and bruises served as a reminder that for many who had experienced the August calamity, more than emotional wounds were still on the mend.
Today, Tricia Hammer finds the memories of August 13 too difficult to talk about. “When I’m outside, and the weather turns bad, I get a lot of anxiety,” says Darrell Hammer, who remains wary of things overhead. An electrical engineer, he thinks about the wires that ripped loose when the stage collapsed, and he wonders how he and Byrd weren’t electrocuted, along with everyone else who tried to lift the fallen structure. Byrd, while still a Sugarland fan, can’t listen to “Stand Up,” one of her favorite songs. The lyrics—when the walls fall all around you—have a new and painful meaning.
Roger Davis, Roger Dake, and Kevin Lapkovitch attended the follow-up Sugarland concert as well; Dake was delighted to see that the two little girls he had noticed up by the stage in August, as well as the man who’d been with them, were all there, and that they appeared to have been unharmed.
Two other little girls at the concert had harder fates. Laura Magdziarz’s daughter Maggie Mullen stayed at Riley Hospital for several days with deep lacerations in her arm and thigh; doctors were able to repair the severed muscles in her arm, and she has nearly regained full use of it. A nurse who helped Maggie at the site of the accident, Debbie Evans, later connected with Magdziarz and told her that Maggie cried only once during the ordeal: when Evans had to cut away her pink tutu.
After numerous surgeries, Magdziarz has yet to recover from her leg injuries; she had a third operation in July. “We were still some of the lucky ones,” she says. “Five of us went there. And five of us came back.”
Jade Walcott remained at Riley for nearly eight weeks. She has had a long and difficult recovery. Regaining basic cognitive and motor skills has required months of intensive, frustrating rehabilitation, and at times she still finds it difficult to perform simple tasks most of us take for granted: getting dressed, brushing her teeth, saying “please” and “thank you.” “She is here, and she is getting her life back, but there are just things that won’t ever be the same,” says her mother, Shannon Raddin. “Honestly, I don’t have the Jade I had before the accident.” Raddin, who had been training for a triathlon before the collapse, still has difficulty breathing and has not yet regained the ability to run. The family’s medical bills have run well over $600,000.
In December 2011, the State of Indiana agreed to pay a total of $5 million—the statutory limit on state tort settlements—to injured survivors of the stage collapse and relatives of those who were lost, and the General Assembly later approved an additional payment of $6 million. Last June, Greenfield-based Mid-America Sound Corporation, which owned the stage structure, and James Thomas Engineering, which manufactured it, offered claimants a settlement in the amount of $7.2 million. The deadline for accepting the payout was August 1.
A report released by a Chicago engineering firm concluded that the structure erected over the State Fair stage could have withstood winds traveling at speeds of up to 43 miles per hour. The gusts of August 13 reached 59. Bent and broken, the wreckage rests in a warehouse on the east side of Indianapolis, now evidence.
Opening photo and State Fair wreckage photo by Ernie Mills; photos of survivors by Tony Valainis
This article appeared in the August 2012 issue.