Survivors recall aftermath of Indiana stage collapse
Sunday, August 21, 2011
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The skies to the west grew darker as Dr. Rob Klinestiver and his 12-year-old daughter waited for country stars Sugarland to take the stage at the Indiana State Fair.
Klinestiver pointed to the scaffolding supporting the stage's roof, lights and other equipment.
"Hey, you know, there's a small chance that if it gets really nasty that thing could even blow over," he told his daughter, Leah.
"Dad, you're kind of freaking me out," she replied.
He reassured her quickly: "I said, 'Oh, never mind. It's a small chance.'"
Moments later, a wind gust of 60 to 70 mph brought down the scaffolding. Happy chatter turned into screams of terror as thousands of pounds of metal and equipment tumbled into the crowd below.
Four people died immediately. A fifth passed away hours later at a hospital, and a sixth died Friday. Dozens more were injured, some so severely it will take months for them to recover — if they ever do.
As Indiana investigates whether the deaths and injuries could have been prevented, the survivors remain haunted by the sounds and images of that night. Many are still grappling with the capricious nature of the collapse, where mere inches determined who lived and who died.
Klinestiver, a big Sugarland fan, was excited to be in the Sugar Pit, a VIP section that promised to bring him within feet of lead singer Jennifer Nettles. He and Leah had taken up spots in the front row, while his wife, Laura, and their 11-year-old daughter, Elise, were in the 11th row of the seated section.
Klinestiver didn't want to lose the prime spots, and when the weather began changing, he started preparing Leah to get wet.
Weary of standing, Leah plopped down on wooden stairs leading up to the stage. A 3-year-old girl with a pink tutu sidled up to her, the fringe from the tutu rubbing against Leah's face.
"Isn't she cute?" Leah asked her father.
An announcer took the stage, told the crowd bad weather was moving and gave instructions in case an evacuation became necessary. But the announcer also said he hoped Sugarland would be out soon, and the crowd cheered.
Minutes later, a blue tarp on the stage roof broke loose as the winds picked up. Klinestiver called, "Let's go!" and began pushing Leah away from the stage.
That swift reaction likely saved their lives. The stage missed Klinestiver by 2 feet.
"I feel like if I hesitated another second, I wouldn't be here," he said. "I feel incredibly lucky."
The girl in the pink tutu, 3-year-old Maggie Mullin, knew the words to Sugarland's songs and had begged to see the band.
"This was better than anything I took her to. I took her to Disney World last summer, and this trumped Disney World," said her mother, Laura Magdziarz of Morocco, Ind., about 70 miles south of Chicago.
They were still in the Sugar Pit when Magdziarz looked over her shoulder and saw the stage sway.
"I grabbed Maggie and just started running," she said.
Karen Brunn of Island Lake, Ill., also was in the front row. It was her 35th Sugarland concert, and she brought her 12-year-old son, Josh. The gust of wind "came out of nowhere," people started yelling, "'Get down! Get down!'" and things started flying on the stage, she said.
"I remember looking up at the lights and thinking, 'Oh, that's going to fall,'" Brunn said.
"We better get out of here," she told her son.
They didn't make it far.
The Sugar Pit had become a morass of twisted metal and broken bodies. Chaos was everywhere, and terrified cries for help came from people trapped under the metal structure.
Klinestiver's first thought was, "'Am I alive?"
He told Leah to find some of the women who had been standing near them and have them contact her mother to say they were safe. Then he went to help.
Natalie Prater, a pediatric nurse, climbed through the wreckage and found Maggie, sitting on her mother's lap and bleeding profusely from an arm wound.
"I need a tourniquet!" Prater yelled.
Someone threw her a shirt, and she tied it around the child's arm.
"Her mom kept telling me I had to get her out of there. I kept telling the mother she had to trust me. I would make sure she was safe," she said.
Prater handed Maggie to a man, who handed her to someone else in a kind of bucket brigade. Eventually, she was passed to Klinestiver, who tried to stanch the bleeding and get her out of the grandstand. But the twisted wreckage was a maze, and he could only get so far.
He handed Maggie through a gap to another man, then followed. An off-duty state police officer came up and took Maggie as Klinestiver ran alongside, trying to keep pressure on her wound until they got her to a triage area.
He handed her off to medical personnel and went back to help others.
He came across Nathan Byrd, a 51-year-old stagehand from Indianapolis who was above the stage aiming spotlights when the scaffolding collapsed.
"I was afraid he probably wouldn't make it," Klinestiver said. "But we were hopeful."
Byrd died early the next morning at an Indianapolis hospital. His funeral was Thursday.
Brunn doesn't remember anything from the time she told her son to leave until she woke up in the triage area with a gash on her head and some broken ribs.
"I knew she was still dazed because she wasn't asking where her son was," said Connie Hoagland, a friend from Champaign, Ill., who escaped injury by seeking shelter against a wall near the stage.
Josh was taken to an Indianapolis children's hospital, his leg broken in several places. He and his mother both face lengthy recoveries.
Hoagland was holding Brunn's head as medical workers tried to revive a woman nearby. She heard one say, "She's done," and they quickly covered the body. She couldn't see who the woman was.
"I was scared to death it was the friend that I had brought to the concert," Hoagland said.
She went back later and looked closely at the shoes the woman was wearing to make sure it wasn't her friend, who she eventually found safe.
The enormity of what happened that night is still sinking in for many caught in the stage's path.
Klinestiver doesn't know what happened to a woman he helped rescue from under a girder or another who needed to be intubated. His wife didn't know for 30 minutes whether he and Leah had survived because cell phone communications were so poor that a text message telling her they were safe didn't go through immediately.
"She saw it go down, and she knew we were in the front row and she really thought she lost a husband and or a daughter," he said.
Magdziarz, who faces a long recovery from leg injuries, said she has no words for her gratitude to those who helped rescue Maggie, who has been released from the hospital.
"If there had been a delay in getting her out of there, I don't think she would have made it," she said. "She made a lot of friends along the way."
Prater, a 24-year-old with two years of nursing experience, said she was glad she was there.
"What I think is so amazing is we were able to turn a wrong-place, wrong-time situation into a right-place, right-time rescue," she said. "... It didn't matter if you were a nurse, doctor or paramedic or whatever. Human instincts took over and we were able to help each other."
Associated Press writer Dan Sewell in Cincinnati contributed to this report.
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