County resident was once responsible for grandstands
Mark Merkel and his wife, Judi, have been to many shows and events at the grandstands of the Indiana State Fair over many years. There were years when they lived in an apartment underneath of the grandstands at fair time but they had never seen anything like the collapse of the stage at Saturday's Sugarland concert.
"I've been to at least a hundred shows or events and have seen various configurations over the years," said Merkel. "I never saw anything like that. There was a lot of weight on the top, lights, accessories and lots of things. When that thing came down, it was so high that it really came down with much force.
"There was the rigging, extra lights and extra speakers," continued Merkel.
"Structurally it was set up the way they wanted it. People don't understand all that is involved in something like this. When that storm hit, there were 8,000 people up in the grandstands. Trying to get that many out to safety is a challenge."
Merkel compared the crowd in the grandstands to a full house at the War Memorial Coliseum in Fort Wayne.
"Imagine that place being packed and then having to get all of those people out immediately because of an emergency," said Merkel. "Add a little panic and excitability and it is a real challenge."
Merkel said that one thing that aided in the impact of the wind gust was nearly a quarter of a mile of open track to the west of the stage.
"I'll never forget the sight of that wind coming in," said Merkel, who was sitting with Judi about five rows up into the grandstand. "All of a sudden I felt the wind come up, a cold wind."
Merkel said that he studied many videos of the collapse from various perspectives. He said that it appeared that the wind initially tore out a piece of the top and the canvas. He noted that the stage shifted a little to the right and then backed up, buckled and collapsed.
"That thing (stage) is high. There is no telling the type of currents that developed inside of it when that wind came in there," said Merkel. "You could see the storms out there, but you couldn't see the wind line on the radars."
Merkel studied sophisticated radar clips later and clearly noted that the wind line moved out and was 10 miles ahead of the storm. He said that one good thing was the fact that the stage collapsed into a more vacant area of the track. He estimated that there were close to 2,000 people on the track but most were to the left of the stage, which actually collapsed into an open area to the right.
"I saw it go and remember saying, 'oh my, there has got to be many injuries,'" said Merkel. "It didn't completely cover the track. The track is about 100 feet wide; there was still 20 to 30 feet left after it collapsed."
Merkel said that different kinds of configurations are used according to the nature of the concert. He noted that law enforcement, fair officials, security and other various officials meet several hours before the concert and lay out all possibilities and planning for potential scenarios that could come up.
Merkel served for two terms (eight years) on the state fair board. Prior to that, he had worked for years as head of the Adams County 4-H Fair. From 2003 to 2007, he was responsible for the facilities and things of that nature at the grandstand.
"During that time I got a pretty good feel for the staging and the rigging," Merkel said. "We were there from the beginning of the opening concert. We were sitting in the fourth or fifth row in the middle. When I saw the clouds, many people were looking at their iPods. You could see the storm out there.
"The grandstand is a pretty safe structure. I have been there for many storms and have never felt uneasy or threatened. We lived in an apartment underneath the grandstand," observed Merkel. "The National Weather Service had projected that the storms and rain would come into the fairgrounds around 9:15 p.m.
Actually, they were pretty accurate, but no one had counted on wind like that."
According to Merkel, Sugarland was scheduled to go on to the stage at 8:45 p.m. but there had been a delay because of announcements and various other things going on. The wind rolled in and the stage collapsed at 8:49 p.m. At that time, the singing group was still in a sheltered dressing room underneath the stage.
Merkel stressed that he was very impressed and touched at the quick response of those racing to help the injured.
"There was a flight attendant close to us from Texas who had come to the concert. She raced to the site to use her nursing skills that she had learned for her job," Merkel said. "As soon as that thing collapsed, it looked like many people who were fleeing turned around and ran back to it. There were electronics all around that could have been charged. People weren't thinking of their own safety at that point. They were concerned about rescuing their fellow humans. That action was very touching to all of us."
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