Seeking Survivors: On Writing About the Indiana State Fair Stage Collapse
I used to think I was immune to the pain of the people I interviewed. Until I covered a tragedy at one of the most beloved of Hoosier traditions.
One was a physician at Wishard Hospital, the other a nurse. They had seen plenty of carnage, and the job demanded that they stay calm when they did. So it wasn’t the injuries of the people pouring into the emergency department after the Indiana State Fair stage collapse. It was the flood of desperate phone calls, loved ones separated from companions during the catastrophe and now trying frantically to find them. The woman who, during brief bouts of consciousness, asked over and over where her 10-year-old daughter was.
I could identify with the perspective doctors and nurses have on tragedy. Their work, like mine, begins in the aftermath. We journalists tend to regard pain with something of a clinical outlook. We search coldly for the causes of drama and suffering, not because journalists are sadists or sociopaths, but because we know that, so often, good writing is the moaning you hear when wounds are poked and prodded. We turn an especially bright light on the worst of the trauma and examine it, because the worst of it, we think, will have the most profound effect on readers. We want to push the right buttons. We want to enlighten. We want to make readers cry. But we often think the stories aren’t going to get to us. At least, that’s what I thought.
Editorial discussions about covering the first anniversary of the 2011 Indiana State Fair stage collapse in Indianapolis Monthly began not long after the incident. The backdrop behind the day-to-day grind of getting a publication out the door is a mission to chronicle the life and history of Central Indiana in ways that not only entertain but also edify. Not covering a disaster the size and scope of the stage collapse—which took seven lives (and affected countless others), damaged a near-universally loved institution, engulfed a national country-music sensation, moved the governor and state legislature to action, and lingers in the courts to this day—seemed out of the question.
But impassioned debate over how to approach the stage collapse emerged nearly as soon as the conversations did. Some of the staff argued in favor of the “oral history” treatment, magazine-speak for a narrative pulled directly from the transcripts of interviews—in other words, presenting the story in the words of the people who actually experienced it. I took the counter position that a capable writer could do the job better, for the very reasons I gave earlier in this article. A writer, I argued, could take command of the first-hand material supplied by witnesses and, like the conductor of a symphony, dictate the tempo and manage the volume, summoning quieter voices out from the din in the first movement, and letting the screams bellow with full brass in the second.
It was a classic case of needing to be careful for what one wishes, because the assignment fell to me. (So you think a writer should do this? Knock yourself out.) What struck me immediately was the number of people I knew who had some kind of connection to the collapse. Roughly 12,000 people had shown up to attend the Sugarland concert on August 13, 2011, but the shockwaves seemed to have reached nearly everyone in Indianapolis. One co-worker told me she had friends who were in the “Sugarpit” concert area when the stage collapsed. Another said he knew a guy who’d been at the collapse and tried to help a woman with a terrible head wound. And yet another revealed that his brother-in-law, a State Police chaplain, had begun the night as a concertgoer and ended it on duty. I mentioned that I was writing about the stage collapse to Steve Simpson, a friend and news anchor with WIBC 93.1 FM, at an industry banquet; he informed me that Charlie Morgan, a radio executive at our shared parent company, had a bird’s-eye view of the collapse from the grandstand and was able to log the first live dispatch from the Fairgrounds just a half-hour after the accident. And my girlfriend’s best childhood pal had a brother who’d barely escaped death when the overhead stage rigging came crashing to the ground.
The stories got closer to the action, and gripped more tightly, the further I ventured into the project. The first interview was with Simpson, the radio newsman, who was at home when the accident occurred. Successive meetings followed with Morgan, the radio executive who saw the crash from the grandstand; Jason Puma, a meteorologist who issued the severe thunderstorm warning from his office just beforehand; and the Wishard personnel who treated many of the victims.
Next came concertgoers from the Sugarpit. It surprised me that most of them, in spite of having seen unspeakable things in and around the wreckage, wanted to talk. For some, it would be the first time they had really shared their experience, with anyone, in any great detail. (Indeed, the journalist’s ear often proxies for a therapist’s couch.) But even more surprising was the minute level of detail with which the concertgoers recalled what they’d witnessed, memories strongly imprinted, no doubt, by extreme duress—in the case of one survivor, for example, his wife tugging at his arm as the two ran in the shadow of the failing structure; for another, the image of two members of the stage crew falling through the air.
From their stories, a vivid picture of the scene at the Fairgrounds immediately before, during, and after the collapse began to emerge. Still, something was missing.
I realize this kind of thinking seems ghoulish. But it is the trade. The clinician in me knew that in order to re-create the stage collapse in a way that truly tugged at readers, I needed to include sources who’d sustained more than emotional wounds. I needed physical agony, recovery, survival. I had lots of lines out, but nothing was breaking. A lawyer, speaking on behalf of an injured woman who’d lost her partner in the accident, turned me down. I never heard back from a young mother who’d sustained a near-fatal head injury, nor from a high-schooler left paralyzed. The woman from Wishard with the missing daughter, the one the doctor and nurse had told me about, said she’d check with her lawyer then get back to me. Our print deadline loomed. Still no word.
With barely a week left before the August issue was set to go out the door, I had a draft of a story with one entire section that consisted of nothing more than a note to my editor: STILL WORKING ON GETTING ONE OF THESE INJURED SOURCES. I THINK STORY WILL STAND WITHOUT, BUT NOT AS GOOD.
Desperate, I looked over my interview notes and found mention of a mother whose 3-year-old daughter had nearly lost her arm in the collapse, and in a last-ditch effort to flesh out my piece, I looked her up and made a call. She answered—and agreed to do an interview the next day. No lawyers, no ground rules. Then, like clockwork, the other mother, the one with the missing daughter, the one whose call I’d been waiting for, contacted me moments later. She could also do an interview the following day, she said.
The next morning began with an interview of Shannon Raddin, from Kentucky, who, felled by the stage structure, had been rushed to Wishard, where she learned that her daughter, Jade Walcott, was in brain surgery at Riley Hospital for Children. In the afternoon, I interviewed Laura Magdziarz, from Morocco, Indiana. Attending the concert with her mother and three daughters, she had sustained extensive leg injuries, and her youngest, Maggie, ended up in Riley as well, with deep lacerations in her arm and thigh.
My editor, I suspect as anxious about the survivor interviews as I was, wanted a briefing. We sat down at a small table in her office, and I described how Raddin had screamed when volunteers pulled the wreckage off and, in the process, removed the only weight holding her shattered pelvis together. I explained that, days later, Raddin learned that another volunteer had rescued her daughter from under a pile of wires, and how a nurse from Texas had kept her alive with a breathing mask until she could be lifted onto an ambulance. I repeated Magdziarz’s account, about how two people she’d never seen before asked her to trust them as they carried off her youngest daughter, whose blood had soaked through her little pink tutu. I started to relay what else Magdziarz had told me, that when she and her mother, who had been knocked unconscious, were whisked off to separate hospitals, her other two daughters, ages 10 and 12, were left behind, stranded and alone. I faltered. I tried to continue, to say that a nice young couple, Samaritans both, had found the two girls, huddled together at the Fairgrounds, shivering and scared, and taken the children under their wing. I was choking up and starting to cry. I struggled to finish the tale, that the anonymous couple had left the Fairgrounds with the two girls, driven them to Methodist Hospital to find their mom, and sat with them in the waiting room.
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.
I used to assume the sullen spells were stress-induced. Until my girlfriend, more intuitive than I, suggested that maybe the run of gut-wrenching stories I’ve been on this year was wearing me down: a valorous, conscientious cop gunned down on a random traffic stop; the missing college girl and her heartbroken parents; the Indiana State Fair stage collapse. It occurred to me that when you’re not physically there as something bad happens, you have to try to put yourself there in order to write about it. I had been going back to the night of August 13, 2011, time and time again, in quick succession. And I was shaken.
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.
These reflections appear as a companion piece to Evan West’s August 2012 cover story.