The Stage

Video and photos of the Indiana State Fair stage collapse provide a sobering reminder that no matter how well stages are engineered and built, structural failure is always a possibility under extreme conditions.

The challenge for the concert industry is to ensure as much as possible the safety of fans and personnel with the highest quality stages and equipment and a set of best practices to guide venues in the event of emergencies.

While Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels has been quoted saying the sudden wind burst that destroyed the stage Aug. 13 was a “fluke” and an “act of God,” others say the five deaths and 40-plus injuries were preventable.

Indiana does not require inspections of large outdoor concert stages by a structural engineer. In fact, its State Fair Emergency Plan consists of nine bullet points on a single page. ISF executive director Carol Hoye has acknowledged that even that wasn’t followed to the letter in the case of the Aug. 13 disaster.

Mid-America Sound Corp. of Greenville, Ind., has provided stages for the Indiana State Fair for at least 10 years, and more than 600 stages have been provided without the company incurring a single OSHA violation.

“All of us at Mid-America Sound are deeply saddened by the devastating tragedy at the Indiana State Fair this past Saturday, August 13,” the company said in a statement. “We have extended our condolences to the victims and their families. An independent investigation has been initiated as we work to understand, as best we can, what happened Saturday night. Many people have contacted us to express their concern and support for us which we deeply appreciate.”

The stage, a Thomas Supertruss Load Bearing Roof, was designed and built by James Thomas Engineering, which has been creating concert stages for major tours and outdoor shows since 1983.

The structure’s maximum dimensions are 76 feet by 58 feet, with a top tower height of 60 feet – the approximate stage height reported by witnesses at the Indiana State Fair. It carries a load capacity of 51,000 pounds, has sound and video fly bays and video wall support.

Bob Bender, president of Bob Bender Productions, was not involved with the Indiana State Fair concert series but has worked on similar shows for most of his 30 years in the business, as either tour or production manager. He has “black flagged” staging companies over the years, but tells Pollstar that he’s often worked with and respects Mid-America Sound.

“Mid-America is a great staging company,” Bender said. “They’ve been in business a long time. I don’t know the situation and we all have to be careful not to go Monday morning quarterbacking, because we weren’t there. But knowing what we know in the industry there should be some very simple guidelines.”

Having called off at least a half-dozen shows because of unsafe conditions, Bender said he recognizes that it’s a difficult call when someone has to tell the audience the show’s off, not to mention the cost of moving or canceling a show at the last moment. But the inconvenience and cost, or even the risk of equipment damage to lower a roof, isn’t worth taking the gamble against catastrophe resulting in injury or death to fans or crew.

“There should be a basic understanding that if you’re in that part of the country, you are going to have these kinds of environmental anomalies that are going to affect the performance of that [roof] top,” Bender said.

“The roof can be brought down eight or 10 feet [off the deck] so that the stage top is not just a box kite, because that’s what [the roof in Indiana] turned into – nothing but a kite,” Bender said. But regardless of whether there is time to lower the roof once a storm warning is issued, he believes there shouldn’t be people up there when there’s even a remote chance of lightning.

“What I want to know is, who in their right mind said it was OK to keep the spot operators up in those trusses knowing this storm was coming?” Bender said. “Human contact on metal, even when it’s aluminum, is not a wise idea when storms come through. You have 220-volt lines running through this truss to run the lights and sound. It’s basically a wonderful grounding rod but not a great environment to have truss operators dangling in.

“Another point I don’t understand, with a state agency in Indiana, is why they didn’t have a state building or code inspection for the lateral bracing or even of tie-downs, and that’s a conversation that several of us in the business have had,” Bender added.

One source of technical information and standards is PLASA, a trade organization of lighting and audio professionals, which is in the process of reviewing its best practices and standards recommendations. While the recommendations are nonbinding, the group’s ANSI E1.21 – 2006 for portable stage roofs would be a good starting point for creation of uniform industry standards, PLASA Technical Standards Manager Karl Ruling told Pollstar.

“We’re in the process of revising the standard … to expand its scope to cover all the portable technical structures that might be used at an outdoor event, such as delay towers and front-of-house lighting positions, with the exception of the audience structures, such as the grandstands, food vendor tents and toilets,” Ruling said. The new version is under public review through Oct. 10.

But even the best plans aren’t 100 percent infallible when Mother Nature comes knocking.

“No matter how well you secure these tops, if you have a 60- or 70-mph gust of wind come through, unless that thing is welded to the ground and has all types of lateral bracing and come-along tie-offs, that thing will fly and come crashing down. This will happen again,” Bender said.

“Shame on us in this business if we don’t take a close look at Indiana and come up with a way to fix it,” Bender said. “We have to police ourselves because, if we don’t, someone is going to come in and police it for us. And that’s not going to be a lot of fun.”