Inspectors start investigation of stage collapse


INDIANAPOLIS - As the investigation into the Indiana State Fair stage collapse continues, the tragedy has claimed another victim. Also, fair officials held a news conference Friday afternoon to discuss the role Witt and Associates will play in the investigation.

Jenny Haskell, 22, died Friday morning. She was a senior at Ball State University who was attending the Sugarland concert with her best friend Alina Bigjohny, who was also killed. Haskell suffered multiple fractures and severe head trauma.

Speaking at Friday afternoon's news conference, State Fair Commission member Ted McKinney acknowledged the fair's "deepest sympathies" to Haskell's family.

"Our hearts go out to Jenny and her family and all who knew her," he said.

Of the 45 people injured in the stage collapse, several remain in the hospital in critical condition. Others are recovering from injuries that ranged from cuts and bruises to severe head trauma and fractures.

Witt and Associates were inspecting the site Friday. They will specialize in studying the fair's preparedness, policies and response.

Witt and Associates have handled incidents like the fatal skyscraper fire in Chicago in 2003 where six people died, and advised the state of Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina. James Witt, who heads the company, is the former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency under President Clinton.

A second team of inspectors from Witt Associates arrived Friday to look into human actions before the event.

"Weather information, look at what had been done in terms of planning, who had individual responsibilities between different agencies," said Witt spokesperson Charles Fisher.

Witt Associates also investigated a 2007 traffic nightmare on Interstate 78 in Pennsylvania. Thousands were stranded in their cars overnight in near-zero temperatures after a communication breakdown.

"Roads were totally blocked and that wasn't getting into headquarters," Fisher said.

No ramps were closed, so cars kept getting on the highway and getting stuck. Communication was frozen all night.

"That is one thing we will look into, both from an interoperability standpoint, a technology standpoint and also human factors. How we communicate verbally and nonverbally," said Witt spokesperson Kenneth Mallette.

Thornton-Tomasetti will conduct the structural investigation. The inspector general of the state of Indiana will also put people on the ground to gather information and interviews for Witt and Associates.

"Right now, there is nothing we've identified that's a particular concern," said Scott Nacheman with Thornton-Tomasetti.

Nacheman says they've found tethers used to support the structure, but it's yet unclear if they functioned properly.

"Obviously, there are a lot of interested parties in this matter," he said.

"We first wanted to get a firm that could look and contain the site for many reasons. That's why we started with Tomasetti," said McKinney. He said the next priority was to bring in an outside firm to help with other aspects of the investigation. McKinney was responding to a question about the timeline of bringing in outside agencies to investigate.

An attorney for two of the victims, including Tammy VanDam, who was killed in the collapse, filed an injunction to stop anyone from touching the wreckage, which might disturb evidence. The attorney says the evidence is now in the control of wrongdoers.

But the fair commission says the victims' experts can inspect the wreckage, too.

"We're going to be transparent and open about this, every step," McKinney said.

McKinney said the findings will be shared with the public once the investigation is complete.

"That's our commitment to the public that we want the truth whatever it might be," he said.