Thirty-six hours after she rushed toward victims trapped under a collapsed stage at the Indiana State Fair, nurse Joy Travis returned to the fairgrounds to say a prayer.
She was having difficulty blocking the images that kept flooding her mind: They began with ominously dark clouds in the distance, flashes of lightning, and a sudden and massive burst of gravel-filled wind that made the stage in front of her seem to swoon.
What followed still seemed like a nightmare to the Plainfield, Ind., nurse who’d been sitting in the grandstands with more than 12,000 other Sugarland fans Saturday night.
The stage’s lights, rigging and scaffolding toppled forward, crashing down on scores of people. By the time Travis could push her way forward, through a panicking crowd, she could see one man was already dead and many more wounded. The death toll would soon climb to five, with more than four dozen people transported to area hospitals.
What still clung to Travis on Monday, after an emotional memorial service at the fairgrounds, was the fear on the faces of the injured and the shouts of police officers trying to clearing a path for makeshift gurneys on which the wounded were being rushed to waiting ambulances.
“They kept shouting, ’make a hole, make a hole, make a hole,’ ” Travis said. “I kept hearing that over and over in my head all night: those police officers trying to get people out of the way. It seemed like it would never stop.”
During Monday’s service, Gov. Mitche Daniels praised those who rushed to help the injured, including many from the crowd who tried to lift the tangled mess of metal and lights off those trapped underneath the collapsed stage.
“My heart is full for those who acted in courageous ways …” Daniels said, choking back tears. “There was a hero every 10 feet on Saturday night. I cannot tell you how proud I am to be the employee of six and half million people like that.”
Indiana Lt. Gov. Becky Skillman opened the service with a prayer that contained a plea to God to help relieve the anxieties of those left behind. The anxiety was evident among the State Fair staff at the service. They’re grappling with tough questions about whether Saturday’s concert should be have been cancelled, due the approaching storm. State Fair director Cindy Hoye openly wept during the service.
In a timeline released over the weekend, state fair officials acknowledged that the National Weather Service had notified them late Saturday afternoon that bad weather was approaching. But Hoye and others believed they’d have more time to clear the crowd once the severe thunderstorm warning had been issued. They were wrong. The weather service issued a warning for Marion County at 8:45 p.m.; the stage collapsed four minutes later.
At the memorial service, Daniels said the time for “laying blame‚” would come later. The Indiana State Police and the state’s Occupational Health and Safety Administration are investigating the accident; a report on their findings may be weeks away.
Among those at the service were family members of Nathan Byrd, a 51-year-old stagehand from Indianapolis who was on top the rigging when the stage collapsed. He later died from injuries.
There were other family and friends of victims at the service, but many who attended were like Travis: They didn’t know the people who were killed but were feeling a deep sense of grief.
“There’s a big sense of family here,” said Misty Price, a concession stand worker. “I keep thinking, ’maybe I met one of the people who died. Maybe I talked to them that night.”
After closing Sunday, the state fair re-opened Monday morning after the service, but the crowds were down. Those who were there seemed somber, said Kelly Webster, a concession stand worker who was outside the grandstand area when the stage collapsed. “It was like a ghost town yesterday after they shut down the fair,” Webster said. “We need people to come back.”
That sentiment was echoed by Lacy Dooley, the Indiana Honey Queen, who’s been at the fair every day. The Rockville, Ind., woman said fair workers and volunteers are hoping people won’t stay away.
“We need their love and support,” Dooley said.
Maureen Hayden is Statehouse bureau chief for the Tribune-Star. She can be reached at email@example.com