The 156th Indiana State Fair opened Friday under the shadow of last year’s fatal stage collapse by celebrating its usual traditions: barns full of prize-winning livestock, acres of amusement rides, a field full of marching bands, and a seemingly endless bounty of corn dogs, caramel corn and lemon shake-ups.
And a lot of heat and humanity.
Shortly after the fairground gates officially opened at 8 a.m., long lines of motorists were waiting to pull into the parking lots and tractor-pulled passenger shuttles were ready to roll. Inside the gates, hundreds of vendors, volunteers and fair employees had set up and settled in, appearing ready for the event’s 17-day run and the nearly 800,000 visitors expected to come.
There are more safety precautions than ever before, including an on-site meteorologist on the lookout for the kind of bad weather that swept in last year, just moments before a stage rigging collapsed on a fair concert crowd, killing seven and injuring dozens.
But the most immediate safety threat remains the same. It’s been brutally hot in the fair’s home city of Indianapolis — Friday followed a 36-day stretch of record heat — so the challenge is keeping both people and animals from succumbing to the high temperatures.
“The heat is always the biggest factor,” said fair spokesman Andy Klotz.
It’s exacerbated this year but a historic drought that has gripped the Midwest and spared almost nothing. The fairground’s usual green grass is dead and dusty and the show-piece crops, like the corn and soybeans around the fair’s Pioneer Village, aren’t much to brag about.
Veteran fair volunteer James Williams, 19, was dismayed to see how short the corn stalks were at Little Hands on the Farm, an interactive, walk-through exhibit in which children can pretend to milk a cow, plant some seeds and gather the eggs.
“Normally this is all grown up, as tall as I am,” said the 6-foot Williams, who’s worked at the play area for the past two years. “And I’m standing in a dirt patch where the soybeans used to be.”
Still, the threat of triple-digit heat index didn’t stop Eden Marr Hogsett, 7, from talking her dad, U.S. Attorney Joe Hogsett, into taking a day off from work to take her the fair.
She was pulling him toward the pony rides and Cowtown USA — where young fair-goers can hand-milk a cow if they promise to wash up when they’re done — when her dad stopped to say hello to U.S. Congressman Mike Pence. Hogsett use to head the Indiana Democratic Party and Pence is a Republican running for governor, but the Indiana State Fair, as they both noted, has fans of all kinds.
“I’ve been coming here since I was kid,” said Pence, who brought his 20-year-old son, Michael, with him to the fair to place a picture of Pence’s late father, a Korean War veteran, at an Indiana National Guard memorial to Hoosiers who’ve served in the military.
Early Friday morning, Pence was courting the votes of farmers at the annual Indiana Pork Producers ham breakfast.
Gov. Mitch Daniels was there too, as was his wife, Cheri Daniels. The couple was serving milkshakes to visitors to the fair’s Dairy Bar. The Democrat candidate for governor, John Gregg, is scheduled to be at the fair in coming days, as is son, Hunter Gregg, a 4-H state fair exhibitor with a champion heifer.
The return to near-normal at the fairgrounds was intentional; fair officials are working to honor the victims of last year’s deadly stage collapse, while reclaiming the fair’s reputation as a fun- and food-filled festival.
There was no mention of the stage collapse during the official opening day ceremony. But there is a moment-of-silence planned for Aug. 13, the anniversary of the collapse. All fair activity, including amusement rides, games and concession stands will come to a halt, for several minutes, beginning at 8:46 p.m. — the official time when the stage rigging collapsed.
There’s also a plaque, near the grandstand, bearing the names of the seven people who died and a new fairgrounds’ sculpture, titled “Celebrating the Hoosier Spirit,” meant to honor the people who rushed into the accident scene to help.
The fatal event triggered investigations into fair safety procedures and raised questions about why fair officials didn’t cancel the concert as a storm was moving in. In response, fair officials have made changes in fair management and safety procedures.
On Thursday, the day before the State Fair opened, Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller announced that most of the victims’ families and those injured in the collapse have agreed to accept shares of a $13.2 million settlement offer from the state and two private companies associated with the stage rigging that collapsed.
So far, at least 51 of the 62 eligible claimants have accepted the settlement offer. In doing so, those claimants agreed to release Mid-America Sound and James Thomas Engineering from additional liability. Those two companies put up a combined $7.2 million in addition to the state’s $6 million.
Zoeller called it an “expedited and reasonable settlement that puts victims first and will provide for the immediate medical and financial needs now, rather than after waging lengthy and uncertain litigation.”
For more information about the Indiana State Fair, including a schedule of events, admission prices and other details, visit the State Fair website at www.in.gov/statefair.
Maureen Hayden is the Indiana Statehouse bureau chief for CNHI, the parent company of the Tribune-Star. She can be reached at email@example.com.