New State Fair guidelines focus on accountability
There were many emotional moments, as the families of those who died in the State Fair stage collapse, returned to the scene Thursday.
At least one injured survivor also came to reflect on the frightening experience. The visit came as State Fair leaders released their new 400-page safety plan promising change to avoid another deadly event.
One by one, the names of those killed in the collapse were read aloud: Alina BigJohny, Nathan Byrd, Glenn Goodrich, Jennifer Haskell, Christina Santiago, Megan Toothman and Tammy VanDam.
Their names are carved in bronze for a lasting dedication to the seven who died when the stage collapsed at the Indiana State Fair last August.
"It saddens me beyond words that there are now dozens of families from around Indiana and beyond that have a tragic memory," State Fair Commission Chairman Andre Lacy said, addressing more than 20 people in attendance.
Families and survivors came from hours away, looking for healing after word spread about the tribute. There were brief comments and a prayer. Within minutes, it was done and emotions spilled over.
"We only came for Alina, because she would have done the same for us, even though we know it was going to be hard," said Polly BigJohny through tears. Her daughter, Alina, was one of the seven fatalities.
"I wanted to honor the families that lost their loved ones," added Andrea Vellinga of Pendleton, who suffered a traumatic brain injury herself in the collapse. Wearing her trademark helmet, Vellinga was an inspiration to some on hand, as she continues to reclaim her life.
"It made me sad looking at it, thinking, 'Thank goodness that my name isn't on this plaque.' But it made me sad for all those people that didn't make it that night," she told Eyewitness News.
Still, for others, the day was a lost opportunity. They walked away empty, sad and angry.
"I thought maybe they would want to shake the hands of the family. Not me, personally, but mom and dad at least. A little bit of compassion," said Christy Collins, Alina BigJohny's sister.
Collins was upset that the commission members were late to the dedication and left immediately following the brief ceremony.
"The rehearsed five-minute speech, I'm sorry, I didn't see any emotions in their face. So it was very hurtful," said Polly BigJohny.
The commission's appearance before the families was delayed by a presentation of its new 425-page comprehensive emergency management plan.
The plan now specifies evacuation policies, postponements and who is in charge of making critical decisions. That responsibility now rests with the commission's new Chief Operating Officer David Shaw.
"I'm absolutely prepared to make those decisions," assured Shaw.
The document clarifies evacuation policies for every building on the ground. It also has identified 16 hazards on the grounds and how to respond to emergencies.
The policy outlines specific weather scenarios and when organizers will make the call to evacuate or postpone activities. Shaw says if approaching weather is within 30 miles of the State Fair, action must be taken. If there is time, the COO will discuss with other safety officials if time permits. If not, the COO has to make the call.
Shaw and Lacy admit the biggest hole last August was that none of the existing plans were formalized. But why?
"My heart goes out in answering that question. It did not exist and it does today," said Lacy.
"I'm glad that they're doing something, but I'm still pretty angry and upset that it didn't take place that night, because I've lost something I can't get back," added BigJohny's grieving mother.
The State Fair will now have a weather tracking system throughout the 17-day event and all 1,200 State Fair employees, including seasonal workers, must complete an online Super Safety Training program.
In response to hurt feelings Thursday, a liaison to the governor's office says the families were not directly contacted and communication was limited at the advice of attorneys because of pending legal action.