By Sandra Chapman, WTHR investigative reporter - bio | email
Andrea Vellinga was seriously injured in the stage collapse.
The Indiana House of Representatives passed a bill Monday requiring inspections of temporary stages. The bill, which passed by an overwhelming majority, was prompted by the August 2011 stage collapse at the Indiana State Fair.
In a 92-5 vote, the first legislation since the State Fair tragedy addressing the scaffolding passed the Indiana House and is now on its way back to the Senate for a final vote.
"It's been a bi-partisan effort. We've had support from both sides of the House on this," said the bill's original author, Senator Tim Lanane (D-Anderson). "The important parts of the bill are still there, which is that we immediately are going to be able to address the issue of outdoor stage structures and how to properly regulate those."
State lawmakers can't change the outcome for Andrea Vellinga. The 30-year old mother from Pendleton is now in Michigan, undergoing intensive rehab for brain injuries caused by the stage roof collapse last August 13 at the Indiana State Fair.
Just a week since her fourth surgery, she's uncomfortable with cameras as she relearns the basics, but gives 13 Investigates her first interview by phone.
"I'm becoming independent in a lot of things. I had to wear a helmet for awhile, before my surgeries. Now it's good, because I don't have to wear my helmet anymore," said Vellinga, who said she's getting speech, physical and occupational therapy everyday.
Now for the first time since the tragedy that changed her life, lawmakers address a glaring failure first uncovered by 13 Investigates.
No one inspected the rigging that crashed to the ground under a burst of wind, not even a permit required under state law.
"That's outside of the regulatory scheme of what we do," explained Labor Assistant Commissioner Jeff Carter, when 13 Investigates inquired about state level inspections on August 15.
A spokesman with Indiana Homeland Security also confirmed that a permit was not required for the stage and that neither Homeland Security nor the State Fire Marshal did an inspection.
It came as a surprise to Governor Mitch Daniels.
"I thought it was a learning point for all of us, that something of that size, that there isn't some either inspection or certification," the governor said a day after 13 Investigates findings.
In January, Rep. David Niezgodski and Lanane both introduced bills to tighten up lax statewide inspections of temporary outdoor stages, despite the majority who said, "Wait."
"I didn't feel that we should wait," Lanane told 13 Investigates. "Even if it's to put in something on a temporary emergency basis, some rules and regulations."
"When you've got something that's not getting the proper investigation and you don't have any kind of inspections, that seems to be a no-brainer for me," echoed Representative Niezgodski.
Days after the Indiana Labor Commissioner fined the State Fair Commission, the owners of the stage rigging and the union that put it up, 13 Investigates uncovered national industry-required inspections were also ignored.
The lighting director for Mid America Sound, the company that erected the structure, revealed in a statement:
"No engineer has ever inspected the structure at any time, of the shows he has ever done and they never inspect the top, because it's 40 feet in the air," he wrote.
In the Senate, Lanane's bill grabbed the support of ranking Republicans who now share in the bill's success.
"The bill does address emergency rules now in the short term because I think it would be negligence on our part if we left the session without doing something," said Rep. Bob Cherry, who will oversee a study committee on the State Fair Commission this summer.
The law would require inspections for all temporary outdoor stages statewide by an engineer, architect or a municipal government, like Indianapolis, that already have a proven permit/inspection process in place.
Lawmakers will hold a summer study session, to make additional recommendations based on the official investigation reports, which is expected some time next month.
"I think it's a good idea," said Vellinga from her hospital room.
She would not elaborate on any specifics because of the pending lawsuits.
13 Investigates Sandra Chapman asked her, "What's been the hardest part for you, Andrea, to go through all of this?"
"Just being away from home and my husband and my daughter and friends and family," she said, still hopeful that she will be able to return to Indiana by the end of May.
"I think it's important that we do have something in place. It's a public safety measure and I think it's an important bill to come out of the session," said Lanane of his bill that is now on its way to the Senate for a final vote to send it on to the governor.