Locals witness stage collapse at state fair

INDIANAPOLIS — What most eyewitnesses remember how is quickly the storm arrived.
It was Saturday just before 9 p.m., and a crowd of thousands was happily waiting for Sugarland to take the stage at the Hoosier Lottery Grandstands at the Indiana State Fair. Sara Bareilles, the opening act, had just finished and the main event, country music duo Sugarland, was set to take the stage at any moment. Although an official had made a brief announcement that they show may be interrupted by severe weather, attendees didn’t seem very concerned.
Missy Poor Williams, of Plymouth, remembers packing her camera safely away after the announcement was made.
“I thought, OK, I’m ready to get rained on,” said Williams.
Unfortunately, rain was the least of what happened only seconds later.
Haley Harrell, of Plymouth, who was in the audience with her family, remembers the moment when she witnessed what can only be described as a tragedy.
“Literally two minutes after he made the announcement (about the weather), the stage started to lean to the right and then it just collapsed,” said Harrell.
With little warning, the stage —loaded with thousands of pounds of equipment — had come crashing down on the crowd below. The VIP section, called the Sugar Pit, had the brunt of the stage fall on them, as well as on those seated behind in chairs.
Harrell clearly remembers seeing a young woman with brunette hair trying to run out of the way of the falling stage and getting hit in the head.
Harrell described joining the crowd in a desperate attempt to get to safety.
“I was in total shock when (the stage) fell over,” said Harrell, “but right after that I never looked back — I just ran to get out of there.”
Harrell ran with her mom, sister, and cousin to a nearby horse barn. When they got there, they realized that Harrell’s uncle, Jeff Beatty, had not followed.
Beatty said that when he reached the ground level of the grandstands, instead of following his family out, he stayed to try to help those trapped under the stage.
“I was thinking, if my kids were under there I would want people to come and help,” said Beatty somberly.
“I got down to the lower area (and) people were asking for help lifting,” said Beatty, continuing, “We were just trying to free them—that’s what we were trying to do.”
Beatty said that when he saw the stage fall, he knew people were hurt. Once he arrived to the area where people were trapped, he observed a horrible sight — other volunteers covering what he assumed were the bodies of two girls.
“I’ve worked construction, and I’ve seen people die before,” said Beatty. “I knew when they lifted (the rigging) up off the girls that they were probably deceased.”
After assisting with the rescue effort, Beatty rejoined his family and they were able to make their way to their car and leave the fairgrounds. Beatty’s 10 year old daughter, Mary, is a big Sugarland fan, and this would have been one of her first concerts. Beutty said that Mary doesn’t want to talk about what happened at the fair.
“Maybe they should have evacuated when they first heard about the weather,” said Beatty. “But it was a freak accident.”
Beatty added that being momentarily separated from his family was the worst part of the whole experience.
Williams attended the concert with her friend Julie Sampson and her parents, Charlie and Candy Poor. Williams had purchased the tickets for Sampson in February, as a birthday gift.
She described feeling helpless when mass pandemonium broke out on the fairgrounds and cell phone service was down.
“There was no communication with the outside world,” said Williams.
After escaping from the grandstands, her group stayed inside a building for about an hour and a half before venturing back outside.
“We walked around aimlessly because we had no idea what we were supposed to do,” said Williams.
Williams and her group eventually left the fairgrounds after the rain died down, only to witness another harrowing accident on U.S. 31 outside Rochester.
The Poors, who were in a separate vehicle, were the first on the scene of a motorcycle accident and had to call for help for the injured parties. Williams reported on Sunday that she was still feeling shaken from the night’s experiences.
“I didn’t sleep much last night,” said Williams. “It’s so hard to find the words for it. The worst moment was knowing that there were people trapped.”
According to the latest news releases, five people were killed in the accident, and at least 24 seriously injured. The fatalities have been identified as spotlight operator Nathan Byrd, 51, of Indianapolis, who died early Sunday morning, as well as Tammy Vandam, 42, of Wanatah; Glenn Goodrich, 49, of Indianapolis; Alina Bigjohny, 23, of Fort Wayne and Christina Santiago, 29, of Chicago — all of whom were pronounced dead at the scene. The fairgrounds were closed Sunday, with plans to resume activities Monday beginning with a memorial service for the victims. Investigations are being made into the incident, although Indiana State Police Sergeant Dave Bursten said in a press conference that there was no way officials could have anticipated the wind gust that felled the stage.