Could It Have Been Avoided?

The Star's Tim Evans has an excellent story analyzing the events that led up to Saturday night's collapse of the the stage rigging at the Indiana State Fair where thousands were awaiting the start of a Sugarland concert, leaving 5 dead and 45 injured. Perhaps the most damning part of his story is the stark difference in how state fair officials handled an approaching severe thunderstorm with wind gusts topping 70 mph compared to Conner Prairie officials for an outdoor performance by the Indianapolis Symphony. Here's how state fair officials handled weather warnings:

Dan McCarthy, the meteorologist in charge of the National Weather Service office in Indianapolis, said the agency had been tracking the possibility of Saturday night storms since Friday and had been in regular contact with fair officials and police as the storm approached.
He said the agency issued a severe thunderstorm warning for Marion County at 8:39 p.m., with wind gusts as high as 77 mph reported in Plainfield, just west of Indianapolis, as the storm approached the city.
Six minutes later, Bob Richards, programming director for a local country music station, took the stage to issue a statement to fans that State Police say was preliminary.
He told fans that severe weather was moving into the area, but that unless the weather became worse, the show would go on. His announcement included instructions on how and where to seek shelter.

Now contrast state fair officials' handling with those of Conner Prairie officials:

But those same warnings produced a very different reaction at Conner Prairie, about 15 miles northwest of the State Fair.
As about 7,000 fans gathered under the summer sky and waited for the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra to take the stage, an emcee from a local radio station came out and addressed the crowd. Storms were approaching, he said, and the show was being interrupted. Fans were told they should immediately head back to their vehicles.
That warning came at roughly 8:15 p.m. -- 30 minutes before the blast of wind ripped across the fairgrounds.
In an email to The Indianapolis Star, Diane Breier, who attended the ISO concert, described the warning:
"At about 8:15 p.m. the announcer (at Conner Prairie) came back onstage and stated that with the information they had about the weather, they did not think it was safe for the crowd to continue. He asked everyone at that time to return to their cars. No ifs, ands or buts. He stated this repeatedly: 'Please return to your cars now.' "
At Conner Prairie, symphony officials make the call on cancellations after conferring with the weather service and monitoring weather radar, said Simon Crookall, president and CEO.
"We tend to take a pretty cautious approach," he said.
The decision Saturday came after officials learned the storms were packing lightning, with the possibility of hail.
Some left. Most stayed.

Evans says that state investigators will also be reviewing the stage rigging set up by Greenfield's Mid-America Sound Corp., which has been providing the service to the state fair for at least 10 to 15 years according to state fair officials. For now, Gov. Mitch Daniels is blaming a cruel and random act of Mother Nature for the tragedy. A separate story by WRTV indicates that the Department of Labor will investigate why the employer of stagehand Nathan Byrd, who was one of the five victims of Saturday's night's tragedy, failed to report his occupation-related death within 8 hours as required by state law. A memorial service led by Gov. Mitch Daniels will take place this morning at 9:00 a.m.