The Indiana State Fair’s Tragic Stage Collapse: Looking for Answers

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Joey Foley / Getty Images

The stage collapses at the Indiana State Fair in Indianapolis on Aug. 13, 2011. It fell just before the country duo Sugarland was scheduled to perform

A stage collapsed in high winds at the Indiana State Fair on Saturday, killing five concertgoers and injuring dozens more. Since then, officials, citizens and the media have been searching for explanations. Here are some of the questions they’ve been asking, and the answers they’ve received so far.

What happened?
Some 12,000 people were waiting for a Sugarland concert to start at the Indiana State Fair in Indianapolis when a 60-to-70-m.p.h. gust of wind hit. An Associated Press story describes the next part in detail: The gust “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.” Videos of the collapse, showing the stage toppling like a house of cards, have gone viral.

(VIDEO: Stage Collapses at Indiana State Fair, Killing Five)

Did fair officials know the weather was dangerous?
Governor Mitch Daniels called the gust of wind an “as-far-as-I-can-tell fluke.” Rolling Stone reported that fair officials contacted the National Weather Service (NWS) four times between 5:30 and 8 p.m. and were anticipating something like 40-m.p.h. winds. According to the Indianapolis Star, the NWS issued a severe thunderstorm warning for the county at 8:39 p.m. AccuWeather, meanwhile, issued a warning for 60-m.p.h. winds about 15 minutes before that.

Did fair officials take proper precautions?
Six minutes after the NWS warning, the crowd was told there was bad weather in the area and that if it worsened, the concert would be called off. They were provided instructions on seeking shelter, but few left. The gust of wind hit four minutes later, at roughly 8:49 p.m. While such winds are “not unusual,” the NWS told the Star, it’s hard to predict their intensity. The gust of wind was an unanticipated precursor to the actual storm, which wasn’t expected to hit for another 15 to 20 minutes, Indiana state officials emphasized. “It’s not clear to me at this stage how anyone could have foreseen a sudden, highly localized blast of wind in one place,” Daniels said.

Should people have evacuated immediately?
A crowd gathered outside for a symphony 15 miles away was evacuated, without incident, after receiving a warning around 8:15 p.m., and some are using that as a point of contrast. Mike Smith, a senior vice president at AccuWeather, told Rolling Stone that the event “was quite foreseeable.” Some anecdotal reports from the scene took a similar tone, though they were not expert opinions. “There should have been warning the storm was coming,” a witness told ABC News. “You could tell the sky was getting really dark off to the left.” Fair officials said they decided to evacuate and were on their way to make the announcement when the gust of wind hit.

Was the structure itself flawed?
According to the AP, fair officials haven’t yet said whether the stage, rigging and lighting were inspected beforehand (and they haven’t even publicly settled on whose job that was). In any case, the integrity of the structure is still being investigated, and there is no word on when the results will be in or how revealing they might be. As various cogs of the state’s bureaucracy get involved, the timeline will likely lengthen.

What’s the takeaway?
Multiple news outlets have pointed out that this wasn’t the first time this season that winds had caused accidents at outdoor shows, and Rolling Stone said this latest event was “prompting questions about whether outdoor shows are safe for bands and fans.” Certainly this incident will have show organizers erring on the side of caution. But for some, the takeaway thus far has been to appreciate the bravery of those who ran to help when the stage collapsed. Daniels said, “There was a hero every 10 feet.”

PHOTOS: Stage Collapses at Indiana State Fair

Katy Steinmetz is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @KatySteinmetz. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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