INDIANAPOLIS – The summer evening at the Indiana State Fair turned strangely cold. The wind blew hard, then harder still, tearing the fabric from the roof of the wobbling grandstand stage.
The crowd, waiting under a thunderous sky for the country duo Sugarland to perform Saturday, had just been told over the loudspeakers that severe weather was possible. They were told where to seek shelter if an evacuation was necessary, but none was ordered.
None of the phone calls workers had made to the National Weather Service prepared them for the 60 to 70 mph gust that blew a punishing cloud of dirt, dust and rain down the fairground’s main thoroughfare. The massive rigging and lighting system covering the stage tilted forward, then plummeted onto the front of the crowd in a sickening thump.
Five people were killed, four of them at the scene. Dozens of people – including several children – remained hospitalized Sunday, some with life-threatening injuries.
The fair canceled all activities Sunday as officials began the long process of determining what happened and fielded difficult questions about whether the tragedy could have been prevented.
Gov. Mitch Daniels called the accident an “unthinkable tragedy” and said the wind burst was a “fluke” no one could have foreseen.
First Sgt. Dave Bursten of the Indiana State Police said the lack of damage to structures on the fair’s midway or elsewhere supported the weather service’s belief that an isolated, significant wind gust caused the rigging to topple.
“All of us know without exception in Indiana the weather can change from one report to another report, and that was the case here,” he said.
The stage toppled at 8:49 p.m. A timeline released by the Indiana State Police shows that fair staff contacted the weather service four times between 5:30 and 8 p.m. At 8 p.m., the weather service said a storm with hail and 40 mph winds was expected to hit the fairgrounds at 9:15 p.m.
Bursten said fair officials had begun preparing in case they needed to evacuate visitors for the impending storm. At 8:30, additional state troopers moved to the grandstand to help in the event of an evacuation, according to the timeline.
Fair officials said the Indiana Occupational Health and Safety Administration and state fire marshal’s office were investigating.